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Crisis Control

May 2019

By Connie Book, Col. Cardon Crawford (Ret.), and Lt. Gen. John Rosa (Ret.)

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A 10-step framework that employs military principles to manage crisis response can help campuses mitigate financial and reputational harm.

An early morning phone call or text is often a college or university leader’s first signal that a crisis is unfolding. The military calls this moment—when you must employ rehearsed battle drills without hesitation—react to contact. 

The harsh reality is that today’s crises are all too often played out in a 24-hour news cycle and require a tight response time, frequently with incomplete information. An inadequate or poor initial response to an event or incident within such a high-pressure, high-stakes environment has the potential to cause long-term harm to a college or university’s reputation or create significant financial and operational disruptions, including disruptions to enrollment or donor giving; a hold or cancellation of budget appropriations from lawmakers; and difficulty recruiting and retaining faculty and staff. Poorly handled crises can also trigger the need for legal services to address lawsuits; result in insurance cancellation; and create a lack of confidence in leadership. 

The risks are real. For chief business officers, these risks have materially adverse financial implications that must be addressed. Campus leaders need a tried-and-true, repeatable business process to mitigate such risks and minimize any financial downside.

Without Warning

Several years ago, there was an intense moment of crisis at the Citadel, Charleston, S.C., during which the local news media offered a mere 10-minute response window to our senior team before issuing a story. In scrambling to develop a press statement about a racial statement, some team members tried to expand the conversation to encompass the larger issue that had led to the unfolding crisis. The military veteran among our group who was working to generate the press statement cautioned against engaging the 500-meter target while the immediate threat stood an arm’s length away. 

Every higher education institution faces the potential of an emergent crisis on a daily basis. How each college or university responds to, or even talks about, a crisis will vary in part based on the institution’s unique culture, values, and traditions. As a military college, the Citadel approaches crisis management through a different lens than many other institutions do. The forward-leaning framework that we employ can inform a new way of thinking about how to consider and address the myriad crises that could erupt on any campus at any time. 

As a result of our crisis, our institution engaged in a larger and longer conversation about how certain military actions and procedures might effectively apply to crisis response within the broader higher education culture. At a time of urgent and significant crisis, the way in which higher education typically conducts daily business—through thoughtful and collaborative deliberation—may not be the best approach. The time will come to conduct the necessary reflective assessments of broad concerns that contributed to the crisis, but foremost is ensuring that you don’t cede control of your battle space by allowing others to set the narrative.  

As an outgrowth of our conversations at the Citadel, the 10-step framework we created for successfully managing and responding to an emergent crisis has been used on our campus to deal with instances of racism, controversial speakers, and charges of sexual assault. We have shared this modified military approach with other institutions, which have tested it and found it effective in situations such as protests, sit-ins, and charged political environments. In these scenarios, the campuses were able to maintain a sense of order and ultimately leverage the crisis to make lasting improvements. 

The following overview of the crisis management battle plan used by the Citadel can help senior teams manage moments of extreme pressure and their aftermaths with greater effectiveness so that their institutions land stronger on the other side.

Step 1: Recognize the Crisis

A core component of managing any crisis is understanding that you are in one. Leadership must be adept at recognizing that a crisis is unfolding and then develop a proportional response. One technique used by the military during the crisis-planning process establishes a crisis continuum by considering two key questions: “What is the most likely scenario?” and “What is the most dangerous scenario?” 

Having conversations at the senior level on campuses where these scenarios play out takes time and resource allocation, but it improves the ability of senior leaders to cover the crisis continuum as they monitor unstable events. Ultimately, leadership must have the ability to declare a crisis and then work to regain control of their battle space. For example, the Citadel’s student Republican Club invited controversial political figure Steve Bannon to speak on campus. Crisis planning for the most dangerous scenario proved valuable, as protests, threats, and news coverage disrupted college operations. That event led our senior team to stand up our crisis action team.

Step 2: Establish Your Crisis Action Team

The military establishes a crisis action team (CAT) when an emerging crisis is identified. The CAT is not the typical emergency operations center staff found on campuses. Rather, team members vary depending on the nature of the crisis that is unfolding. While the team will likely include vice presidents in charge of operations, communications, academics, and general counsel, subject matter experts on campus are often called to serve as well. They can include the chief diversity officer in matters of racism, or the vice president of student life when the issue is student conduct.

Step 3: Select a Team Leader

The CAT should be staffed by a trained leader who can move the team through the decision-making cycles necessary to respond in a timely and effective manner, despite the multiple moving parts of the situation at hand. The key characteristic of this leader is that he or she is not responsible for normal operating functions, but rather, is free to dedicate himself or herself 100 percent to unfolding events until the crisis is stabilized.  

Leaders at other colleges have told us that, when identifying this person on their campus, it is important that he or she have a strong understanding of operations, the respect and trust of the senior team, and the ability to “think like the president.” One might then wonder, why not have the president serve in this role? Here’s why: The president is critical to decision making. The stronger position for the president is to come to the CAT as a decision maker, not as the one crafting potential decisions. That scenario would create fatigue at the exact time when fresh energy and insight are needed.

Additionally, while the CAT is in motion, the normal operating chain of command is suspended, and the CAT leader becomes the primary communicator with the president, synchronizes and prioritizes responses, and presents the unfolding courses of action. 

Step 4: Establish a Common Operating Picture 

The first priority of the team is to develop what the military calls a common operating picture. Each team member must know all the current information as the campus community will look to the established leadership to keep it informed. A strong common operating picture allows for effective leadership down the line, with each community member ready to respond appropriately in what may be a dynamic and unstable environment. The CAT leader should designate who on staff has the most accurate picture of what has transpired and direct that person to inform the rest of the group. 

The team must also pay attention to the time that is elapsing while this update is taking place. If the crisis is significant enough, television, print, and social media are likely already aware of the event or have some indication that something is taking place, or has taken place, on campus. This requires the team to respond quickly. As soon as the update is complete and staff members have a few minutes to ask clarifying questions, attention must shift to efforts to stabilize the environment. This is usually a statement from the university leadership, as transparency is a critical element of successful crisis management.

Step 5: Draft an Initial Press or Community Statement

Initial press and community statements are fundamental to effective crisis management and set the tone for the rest of the crisis. This initial response is something you will never have a chance to do over once it is released. A short window is available to communicate and regain control of your battle space. Leaders should set a stated and public goal of how long before initial statements will be released during a crisis and how frequently the community will be updated. 

In the military, this stated goal is typically to have a press statement issued within one hour. This critical first response is considered part of the close fight. A successful statement can help the university stabilize the crisis and allow for the time needed to shape the deep fight. Once a common operating picture is established, the communications director will become a critical member throughout the crisis.

Step 6: Inform Constituents

After the initial statement is approved by the president, the CAT must focus on what messages to send various constituencies and the timing and synchronization of those messages. This is more than a simple list. Communicating effectively with stakeholders can mitigate the momentum of an emerging crisis as stakeholders can become critical to the narrative unfolding outside the institution. 

When crafting the list of who needs to hear from you, also consider who should carry that message. Names on that list, such as the board of trustees, will naturally need to hear from the president, but what other constituencies can be called by senior staff, deans, or the athletics director, for instance? Because of the heightened situation and the attention it requires, this step can easily get overlooked. Yet, all too often when an important group or individual is inadvertently left out, then their lack of knowledge can become a crisis accelerant. For example, if no one has called your governor to share news of the crisis and next steps, there exists a likely scenario where he or she is asked about what is happening and delivers a weak or inaccurate response.  

Step 7: Determine Essential Tasks and Synchronize Events

As constituents are informed, the team’s attention must shift to essential tasks and synchronization. Essential tasks are those two or three tasks that must happen to enable effective crisis management. Synchronization includes all the operational factors needed to achieve a coordinated response across campus by internal and external elements. Examples include the coordination of campus security and local, state, and federal law enforcement; deployment of emergency assets; changes to class schedules; and notification of town hall meetings and designated protest areas. 

This coordination results in an operations schedule that shows all the events that must take place in time and space and those responsible for executing these events. The chief business officer will no doubt participate in these synchronization efforts, which have public safety and physical plant operational components. Once the essential tasks list is complete and synchronization efforts have started, the CAT leader can begin to develop the mission statement for the crisis. 

Step 8: Develop a Mission Statement

Mission statements are critical to successfully managing emerging crises, as they keep team members focused on what they are trying to accomplish. Good mission statements provide the who, what, when, where, and success criteria. The CAT leader is responsible for the initial development of a mission statement. At the beginning of the second CAT meeting, the mission statement is presented to the group for discussion and edits. Once the team agrees on the mission statement, it must be approved by the president. 

A typical initial mission statement will work within the mission and values of the university to execute due process in addressing the crisis and determining next steps. The military has learned that, when managing a crisis, it is critical to create a high level of confidence that a fair and impartial investigation will be conducted, consistent with American values and with as much transparency as possible. These three ingredients for success have been tested in multiple environments. For instance, the Citadel adopted the following definition of success during a recent crisis: Success is defined as handling this incident in a fair and impartial manner that meets all applicable legal requirements and adheres to the policies and regulations of the college while showing our continued commitment to our core values.

Step 9: Synchronize Crisis Events and Normal Operations

A natural tendency during any crisis is for an all-hands-on-deck approach until the crisis is mitigated. However, this can create significant financial risk and further harm campus reputation. The CAT leader is responsible for working with senior leadership to ensure that normal operations continue simultaneous to the crisis management efforts that are already underway. In many instances, an event that has the potential to lead to a crisis can be mitigated. 

For example, suppose that a protest is planned on campus in front of a key academic building while campus tours for prospective students and their families are taking place. A possible solution is to work with admissions to ensure that the tours avoid the protest area. In the case of the Citadel, an event carrying overtones of racism involving some current students occurred as future students were learning they were admitted to the college. Communicating with this prospective group of students about why the actions of some current students were inconsistent with our values as an institution was critical to ensuring strong enrollment patterns for the coming year. In fact, this effort led to a record level of diverse students choosing to attend the Citadel. If managed correctly, current crises and potential crises can actually provide critical opportunities to advance the institution.

Step 10: Return to Normal Operations

The CAT leader is responsible for assessing when the emerging crisis has ended and making a recommendation to the president for the team to stand down. During this final meeting, it is critical that the responsible staff are tasked with any remaining actions and given suspense dates, or deadlines, in order to review the institution’s response. Crises often have after-action elements that are carried out for months following key events. Scheduling and synchronizing this work is essential to the ongoing success of the initial mission. 

In fact, institutions involved in effective de-escalation are proactively working to mitigate the lingering risks that a crisis can create. In our experience, CAT members have found it helpful in this final conversation to revisit the most likely and most dangerous scenarios. For example, ask: “What if, after resolving the crisis, it happens again?” 

Crisis Imperatives

These 10 steps are offered as a successful framework for managing any number of crises institution leaders may face. The chief business officer, while not the CAT leader because of his or her other essential responsibilities, is nonetheless critical to the success of mitigating crises and their potential for financial and reputational risk. On college campuses, it is the CBO who is often tasked with emergency planning. In that work, he or she can develop scenarios for one of the most important elements of success in a crisis: practice. One only has to read the headlines and understand ensuing impacts to enrollment and reputation to know that more work can always be done to develop and hone a crisis action skill set among essential personnel on campus. The most powerful practice involves real-world scenarios that simulate high-pressure, decision-making environments.

Finally, no matter the crisis, three key imperatives work to stabilize the institution and advance successful decision making under pressure: executing a transparent response, using due process to ensure a robust understanding of the events, and never compromising on the core values and mission of the institution. 

CONNIE BOOK, president of Elon Univeristy, Elon, N.C., is former provost and dean at the Citadel, Charleston, S.C. COL. CARDON CRAWFORD (Ret.) is director of government and community affairs at the Citadel, where he also serves as the college’s crisis action team leader. LT. GEN. JOHN ROSA (Ret.), president emeritus of the Citadel, is a senior member of the consulting group, Crisis Action Training and Intervention.

Related Topics

At a time of crisis, the way in which higher education typically conducts daily business—through thoughtful and collaborative deliberation—may not be the best approach.

If managed correctly, current crises and potential crises can actually provide critical opportunities to advance the institution.