APCO’s issues management guru Vada Manager presented at a session on crisis management and risk mitigation at the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum this week. It was a great dialogue and Vada has outlined his top line advice in the post below. Colleges and universities are communities within communities, and stakeholders (students, alumni, fans, local residents, state officials, etc) expect transparency and integrity from these institutions, as they would from any organization. As you will see from Vada’s comments, the expectations for being a responsible citizen in higher education are the same as a corporation.
Athletic conference realignments altering cherished rivalries within college sports. Alleged acts of pedophilia by coaching staff against children in their care. Compliance violations and a range of sometimes controversial penalties assessed against member schools. This is the context for which the NCAA and several of its marquee institutions enter into the previously hallowed football bowl season. Lack of preparation and poor decision-making have resulted in several senior administrators becoming a part of the anticipated December unemployment statistics instead of leading their schools or departments. This will indeed be a winter of unprecedented criminal investigations, litigation and adverse media coverage.
As daily stories regarding the aspects of these events have unfolded on our TV screens and social media, several friends and journalists have called to ask how or if any of this could have been possibly prevented. Of course, no one can fully prevent horrendous judgment committed by individuals within an institution if a person is intent on engaging in morally reprehensible or criminal acts. However, more than ever before, boards of directors of corporations and university trustees are asking their senior executives to ensure that their institutions have a fresh crisis plan and that all the requisite stakeholders in the enterprise are equipped to operationalize it when the inevitable mayhem visits their doorstep.
What does such preparation look like for a large, complex multi-stakeholder organization such as a university or corporation?
Here are a few steps to lay the groundwork for a more robust enterprise risk management and crisis plan:
- Practice “anticipatory management” and build a plan. In other words, there are many maladies or material events one can defuse by having a dedicated issue identification system and an assigned senior manager with responsibility to be laser-focused on mitigating what could possibly go wrong. Are you comfortable that your retail doors or college bookstore have a practiced protocol if a robbery were to occur or a natural disaster threatened the lives of staff there?
- Pre-identify an internal issue/crisis management team and provide them the authority to act.
- Build relationships with the media and other third-party stakeholders – prior to a crisis.
- Practice your crisis management protocol through scenario training. Involve your Board of Trustees, president’s office and other key corporate/university stakeholders in preparing for any number of likely scenarios at your institution.
- Media train your key personnel – selection of a credible spokesperson and their ability to communicate under pressure is crucial.
Whether you are a corporation or a university, you need to know how to assess the full context of your respective situation – using both qualitative and quantitative tools – in order to determine the best use of your resources. We have a proprietary system we call the APCO Predictive Risk & Opportunity (PRO) Model that we have successfully applied in many situations.
While working in a senior capacity for the largest consumer athletic brand on the planet, my colleagues knew that the best work I often performed was managing those decisions and incidents internally before our employees, investors and other stakeholders even knew they were an issue. On major decisions such as new athlete signings, new market entry and certain product debuts, we applied an issue management lens that allowed us to better control the desired outcomes and take greater risk, if warranted. If a crisis did occur, we had a plan and knew what team was in charge.
Prominent universities are indeed strong brands that need protecting as the thousands of students (stakeholders) often link the values of their diplomas to the overall reputation of the institutions. Sponsors and faculty all-stars also pay attention to a university’s reputation as the competition is fierce for their expertise.
If companies and universities learn anything from the recent spate of organizational crises or meltdowns, it certainly should be to accelerate your crisis management plan development and the training of your teams. Taking these steps allows you to focus on the bigger picture and recovery – instead of the process. It is no time to try and develop a protocol when you could be fighting for your very existence.