Crises are a fact of life when operating student properties. Facing bad situations quickly and with a strong, authentic voice requires a plan. Going dark on social media is not an option.
A crisis situation can occur in any business, but when it comes to student housing, the chances that you will experience some type of crisis at your community are unfortunately much higher than the typical business. The reality is that you are in the business of creating fun, off-campus living environments for hundreds (or thousands) of young adults who will make bad decisions at your community. Whether the crisis is something that you could have prevented, or something that was totally out of your control, it’s going to come back on you as the owner or management company of the property.
Let’s talk about how you can be prepared for these type of events, how you can handle them, and how you can minimize the negative impact on your community.
#1: Create a crisis-communication plan long before you need it.
No one wants to imagine the worst-case scenario happening at their community, but I promise you that it’s easier to do the planning ahead of time than it is to scramble and feel unprepared if something does happen. Step one: draft up a crisis-communication plan for each of your properties. At the most basic level, this plan should break down who the crisis-communication team will be (with contact information), include a list of stakeholders who will need to be communicated with, define a process for talking with the media and for disseminating information on social media, and a response action plan. Make this plan readily available for your on-site team to access in case of an emergency.
#2: Gather the facts, face the reality, and agree on your approach.
When something does happen, get your crisis communication team together immediately to evaluate the facts. Sometimes your team will need to be expanded to include an external group (police department, university official, etc.). Get the facts and come to an understanding of how and why the crisis occurred. If the community is at fault in any way, it’s important to accept that blame and to know your solution. What steps are you currently taking to control the situation? How are you going to prevent this from happening next time?
Agree on your initial message to your stakeholders (your messages may change, or be updated, as more details of the crisis unfolds depending on the severity), and document the process for gathering and disseminating new information as it becomes available.
#3: Designate one spokesperson and communicate.
In the world of crisis communications, the phrase “actions speak louder than words” will not get you far. Instead, you have to use the right words and take the right actions – and you have to do it quickly. Choose one voice to do all of the talking. This person should be well-versed in talking to the media, he or she must be perceived as authentic and should understand the community’s key marketing messages. Most importantly, your spokesperson should be on-site the minute something happens. Typically, you don’t want to throw the property manager into this role, so you may need to have someone fly out right away to be on-site through the duration of the situation.
Questions from students, parents and the media will be flying in faster than you can plan for, so it’s vital to share whatever approved messages you can, ASAP. Many times while the situation is still being evaluated, the first response may be something similar to this statement: “We are working quickly with the authorities to gather all of the facts behind this incident and plan to share updates with you immediately as we get them.”
Saying “no comment” to the media, or going dark on social media, is not the solution. In this digital age of instant response, you have to recover quickly, find your voice, and use it. That doesn’t mean you should be answering questions that you truly do not have the answers to, but you need to say something to reassure the public and regain control.
By creating an effective crisis-management plan, you are one step ahead and have the ability to minimize the negative impact of a crisis situation at your community.
Melissa DiGianfilippo is a partner and the vice president of public relations for Serendipit Consulting, a public relations, marketing, branding and event-planning firm with a specialization in the student housing market. Melissa can be reached at email@example.com or at 602-283-5209