Navigating Crises in Higher Education in the Digital Age

casual office discussion

These are strange and difficult times for establishments in the Higher Education field.

Here’s just a partial list of the tricky issues they are facing:

  • Title IX and handling sexual harassment allegations
  • Free expression on campus
  • Senior leadership positioning & transitioning
  • Attracting international students
  • Town-gown relations
  • Diversity and inclusion


No wonder highly experienced communicator Harlan Teller, who knows first-hand the challenges as chief marketing officer at Northern Arizona University, chose navigating crises in higher education as the theme for a newly authored chapter in the recently published 3rd edition of the hugely popular handbook, ‘The New Rules of Crisis Management in the Digital Age’.

Harlan points out that aside from facing the same issues that are represented in all of society, there are nuances specific to a higher education institution – particularly that they are public bodies and therefore subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

As he observes, this puts decision-making into a more expansive and deeper fishbowl than otherwise might be the case, even in this age of corporate transparency.

In the new chapter, Harlan identifies five principles which will help a university communications officer turn these challenges into opportunities:

  • Remember that it starts with the faculty: Build relationships and treat them as thought leaders, ambassadors and key assets that are helping build brand and reputation and they can be a huge help when dealing with difficult issues.
  • Counsel leaders to show respect and openness, but not cede control: For example, if free speech is on the table, encourage the college leadership to act as educators, teaching students why free speech and embracing diverse perspectives helps prepare them for life beyond the campus.
  • Sometimes it’s all about showing up: Teach a PR or communications class from time to time, or lecture in one. Show up for extracurricular activities on campus or participate in activities in town.
  • Heed the canaries in the coal mines – otherwise known as the FOIA: Freedom of Information requests take on all shapes and sizes, but when you see a critical mass of requests coalesce around an issue or set of issues, it’s time to sit down with university administration to discuss how to address it.
  • Integrate brand and reputation in one place: It’s vitally important that there be real integration of planning and messaging as well as intelligence gathering and sharing between the communications and marketing functions. 

Harlan concludes with the observation that on a college campus it’s all about balancing competing stakeholder interests, while demonstrating respect for all stakeholders and an openness to dialogue, engagement and active participation.

You can read the full chapter, together with 11 other contributions from experts in the crisis field, by downloading a FREE copy of the book here!