III. Building Blocks and Positioning

To Tell the Truth: Crisis Communication in A Post-Truth Era

Dr. Lynn Pasquerella

The worst global pandemic in more than a century coincided with a profound moment of racial reckoning in the U.S., shining a spotlight on the critical importance of effective crisis communications by campus leaders. Amid charges that presidents’ public statements on issues of racial and social justice and the health and well-being of their communities had become mere performative acts propelled by either a liability-driven or corporate ethic, many experienced a reluctance to engage in the level of communication required by normative leadership during crises. Indeed, surveys showed that crisis communication was one of the top three areas campus leaders felt least prepared to tackle.

The complexities of communicating about internal and external crises is enhanced by a burgeoning mistrust in higher education and the pervasive influence of social media. Within this post-truth era, in which facts ostensibly matter less than controlling the narrative, controversies often make it into the headlines before reaching the president’s desk. Various constituencies—students, faculty, staff, alumni, governing boards, and the extramural community— often demand immediate, and different, types of responses. Yet, presidents who do communicate swiftly, frequently, and authentically in addressing the urgent matters of the day, are consequently accused of undermining avowed commitments to shared governance and collaborative decision-making.

This chapter details action steps college and university presidents should take before making public statements about crises, the values that should inform them, and the crucial role of resilience in ensuring that immediate challenges do not undermine an institution’s long-term strategic goals.

The worst global pandemic in more than a century coincided with a profound moment of racial reckoning in the United States, shining a spotlight on the critical importance of effective crisis communication by campus leaders. Amid charges that their public statements on issues of racial and social justice and the health and well-being of their communities had become mere performative acts, propelled by either a liability-driven or corporate ethic, many presidents experienced a reluctance to engage in the level of communication required by normative leadership during crises.

The complexities of effectively communicating about internal and external crises have been enhanced recently by a burgeoning mistrust in higher education and the pervasive influence of social media. Within this post-truth era, in which facts ostensibly matter less than controlling the narrative, controversies often make it into the headlines or go viral during a 24/7 news cycle before ever reaching the president’s desk. Various constituencies—students, faculty, staff, alumni, governing boards, and the extramural community—demand immediate and sometimes differing types of responses. Yet presidents who do communicate swiftly, frequently, and authentically in addressing unanticipated urgent matters are consequently accused of undermining avowed commitments to shared governance and collaborative decision-making.

This chapter details action steps college and university presidents should take before making public statements about crises, the values that should inform them, and the crucial role of resilience in ensuring that immediate challenges do not undermine an institution’s long-term strategic goals.

How COVID-19 Changed Everything

Messaging to address the needs and concerns of various constituents during a crisis is a central component of successful presidential leadership. Indeed, in their study on pathways to the university presidency and the future of higher education leadership, journalist Jeff Selingo and his research colleagues note that in interviews with 165 public and private college and university presidents, being a strong communicator was identified as the second most important skill needed for the job, after strategic thinking (Selingo, Chheng, and Clark 2017, 2). However, even before the onset of COVID-19, an American Council of Education survey revealed that crisis management and the concomitant communication it requires is one of the top three areas campus leaders have felt least prepared to tackle (Gagliardi, Espinosa, Turk, and Taylor 2017).

These findings are understandable given the intricate and multilayered nature of crises that have befallen college campuses over the past decade. Beyond coping with devastating natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, and fires that have precipitated campus closures, college and university presidents have been confronted by high-profile incidents ranging from mass shootings, bomb threats, and White Supremacist marches to admission scandals, hazing deaths, incidents of sexual abuse and harassment, violent clashes over freedom of expression, and resurgent activism around issues of racial and social justice. These scenarios have tested the abilities of college and university presidents around crisis communications in new and extraordinary ways, heightening attention to crisis readiness in higher education.

Even so, no one could have anticipated the monumental challenges posed by the impact of COVID-19 for campus leaders when exercising the key competencies of writing and speaking to diverse audiences during times of crisis. From the moment in March 2020 when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, college and university presidents were met with a series of questions about how to respond, particularly with respect to mask mandates, quarantines, campus closures, and the transition to remote learning. Immediate concerns were raised by faculty, staff, students, parents, and members of the extramural community over whether the measures taken by campus leaders were sufficient to protect the health and safety of everyone involved, or alternatively, an unwarranted infringement on individual liberties. The rapidity with which scientific information and medical advice was evolving created additional layers of complexity regarding the correct course of action, how much should be communicated, and how often. These challenges became even more daunting when vaccines became available, and campus leaders were forced to decide whether to require this public health measure and, for some, whether to stand up to state laws proscribing them.

As crisis teams came together to strategize, it became clear that preventing the transmission of the virus was not the only factor to be considered in safeguarding well-being. Communications foreshadowing closures were met by a surge in petitions from students hoping to stay on campus due to food and shelter insecurities, inadequate access to computers and high-speed internet, or the inability to travel home because of their international status. Presidents who decided to move to online instruction out of “an abundance of caution” were confronted by frustrated, beleaguered faculty who took on additional workloads and felt ill-prepared for delivering their classes in an unfamiliar format. They were joined by angry students, especially seniors who felt cheated out of commencement ceremonies and co-curricular activities marking milestones in their educational journeys, and by parents demanding refunds for what they saw as a bait-and-switch approach to charging the same tuition for what they considered to be a lesser quality learning experience. As uncertainty around the future continued, staff, too, became increasingly vocal in calling for clarity around job security throughout campus shutdowns and for continued work flexibility when they reopened. Together, these responses signal the importance of presidents knowing whom they lead, since what constitutes a local crisis is often a function of campus and community culture.

Worsening Culture Wars

The nuances entailed in the nature, scope, and frequency of communications around COVID were magnified by escalating culture wars. By the end of the first semester in which campus leaders were dealing with the pandemic, anti-lockdown and anti-mask rallies were being held in half of the states across the US. Educators, health experts, and other scientists advocating for mask mandates and quarantines were compared to Nazis, fascists, and the Taliban. Roving strangers with targeted agendas used social media to enlist the public in opposing such measures on campuses—some setting up troll accounts to spread disinformation. At the same time, just as data were emerging about the disparately negative impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, and in the aftermath of a series of brutal murders of African Americans at the hands of White police officers, Black Lives Matter protests spread across the country and around the world. These efforts to call out structural racism were met with backlash in the form of a new wave of overt racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-Asian sentiment, catalyzing fear and apprehension among college students.

A campaign against books like the New York Times’s 1619 Project and curricula focused on telling a more inclusive story of American history was launched by those who regarded these initiatives as un-American propaganda. Falsely categorized under the heading of Critical Race Theory, the overarching goal of critics was to curtail what they viewed as liberal, progressive indoctrination, or “wokeism.” More than seventy-nine bills in twenty-nine states were introduced between January 2021 and January 2022 that sought to prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” through discussions of diversity, equity, inclusion, multiculturalism, racism, and gender identity. In many instances, these educational gag orders were accompanied by hotlines created for people to report violators (Friedman and Taber 2022).

Similarly, following the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs, which overturned Roe v. Wade, an Idaho ban was imposed on faculty and staff that prohibited counseling someone to get an abortion, promoting abortion, or referring someone for the procedure (Flaherty 2022). Moral distress arose for presidents forced to choose between following state laws or defending the academic freedom and principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion foundational to their institutional missions. Nevertheless, a felt sense of responsibility to address the widening racial and gender inequities in education and health following COVID and Dobbs needed to be weighed against their fiduciary responsibilities during a period of existential threat, made worse by legislators who promised to withhold funds from those who violated educational gag orders.

Moreover, in the months that followed the initial campus closures, enrollments declined, student financial needs increased, and sources of revenue from room and board, campus events, and conferences dwindled. There was pressure from state legislators and the public to do more with less and to limit offerings to disciplines seen as leading to immediate employability, as in Alaska where the board of regents voted to cut thirty-nine programs and reduce four others (Mangan 2020). Under the circumstances, college and university presidents were forced to communicate unpopular messages around the allocation of scarce resources outside of their control, detailing reductions in faculty and staff and the elimination of departments and programs.

Lessons Learned

The experience of presidents engaged in crisis communication around COVID-19 reinforces the need for ongoing crisis planning at more in-depth levels. Beyond preemptive decision-making by assessing responses to past crises and analyzing case studies from other campuses, presidents should work with their communities to develop values statements that will guide them in ethical decision-making when the next crisis arises. This includes planning around when, how much, and how often to communicate to various groups. While nearly every college has crisis plans in place to respond to infectious diseases, few if any had planned for the magnitude and duration of COVID’s impact. In fact, in a study done between May and October 2020 on crisis communications by thirty-seven campus leaders at thirty institutions, participants unanimously agreed that their plans were inadequate to address the higher uncertainty of COVID and the length of the crisis (Liu, Lim, and Shi, et al. 2021, 462).

Engage in Reality Testing

Having diverse teams of faculty, staff, students, and community members in place to advise on prospective crises can help mitigate accusations of unilateral decision-making in an environment that privileges shared governance and collaborative decision-making. It can also aid in the reality testing necessary for effective messaging. In early 2021, amid continuing racial unrest, 77 percent of college presidents said that race relations on their campuses were excellent or good, but 81 percent thought they were only fair or poor on other campuses. A year later, a mere 19 percent believed race relations were good on campuses nationally. Yet they were convinced that race relations on their own campuses were better, with 63 percent maintaining they were either excellent or good (Lederman 2021). The disconnect between the confidence of presidents regarding race relations on their own campuses and on others indicates why it is important for presidents to shape messages based on continuing input from multiple stakeholders. In assessing campus climate, it might be tempting to base the status of race relations on such straightforward factors as the absence of protests or hate crimes. But without incorporating a deeper look into the perceptions of faculty, students, and staff, who may have radically different perspectives, presidents’ assessments risk being too narrow. Keeping in mind the impact of individual identity and positionality in judging campus conditions is important to crafting effective communication and building trust, which is a precursor.

Transparency and Inclusion as Foundations for Trust

Bolstering trust also requires a commitment to transparency in the form of open and honest communication. Presidents have a unique vantage point and access to information others on campus do not possess. In the survey of presidents done by Inside Higher Ed more than a year after COVID-19 closed campuses, only 57 percent agreed that faculty members at their institutions understood the challenges confronting their colleges and universities and the need to adapt (Lederman 2021). Bridging this divide can be facilitated by presidents taking advantage of faculty research expertise in areas related to the crisis, such as public health, behavior change, structural racism, and communication. Including that expertise, alongside staff, student, and community member input on crisis communications teams can improve transparency, broaden the perspectives of everyone involved, and help foster the necessary trust by involving respected messengers from various groups.

Having a diverse crisis communication planning team is also valuable for gauging how messages are being heard and interpreted. Knowing that in the absence of information, people tend to make it up, withholding difficult news to prevent panic or alarm can be problematic. But when there is limited information or the circumstances are changing rapidly, presidents must strike a delicate balance between transparent and timely communication and avoiding over-assurances, which can ultimately lead to a reduction in trust. Most presidents understand this, yet the very skills that led to their appointments—the capacity to create an ascendant narrative when confronting adversity and to instill confidence in the community—may unintentionally undermine their efforts.

Develop Strong Relations with Community Partners

The COVID-19 crisis also reinforced the importance of developing strong relationships with community partners, whose communication can significantly affect the capacity of campus leaders to garner and retain trust during trying times. There was widespread criticism of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over their confused public health messaging around COVID and the failure to effectively communicate shifting guidelines as new scientific evidence was discovered. The politicization of public health messages, in which individuals and organizations intentionally distorted information, further complicated matters. These realities made it much more difficult for presidents to engage in effective communication around critical safety issues, highlighting the need for leaders to acknowledge uncertainty resulting from a lack of information.

This need was underscored by the fallout from conflicting comments made by police authorities in the aftermath of the brutal murders of four University of Idaho students, who lived off-campus in Moscow, Idaho; they were murdered just before Thanksgiving break in 2022. While the police initially reported that the stabbing deaths were “an isolated, targeted attack” and there was “no imminent threat to the public,” a few days later the Moscow police chief backtracked, announcing, “We cannot say there is no threat to the community, and as we have stated, please stay vigilant, report any suspicious activity, and be aware of your surroundings at all times” (Rodrigues 2022).

Adding to the confusion, the county prosecutor handling the case said in a news interview that “investigators believe that whoever is responsible was specifically looking at this particular residence.” However, at a press conference the very next day, the police chief reported that there was a miscommunication with the prosecutor and that a motive was still being sought. In the meantime, the parents of the murdered students went public with their anguish over poor direct communication to them, and skyrocketing anxiety among students and community members fueled skepticism and suspicion that everyone communicating about the issue knew more than they were letting on (Rodrigues 2022).

In response to student and parental fears, the campus instituted safety workshops, stalking awareness seminars, self-defense classes, enhanced counseling, ride shares, and distributed Birdie alarm systems. Still, the erosion of public trust that ensued foregrounds how crucial it is for campus leaders to build relationships with external groups, including the press, and coordinate messaging to the extent possible when crises arise. This strategic relationship building should be immediate and ongoing.

Anchor Institutions and Empowered Communication

Oftentimes the kind of engagement by campus leaders that is necessary for establishing trust follows from an explicit commitment on the part of colleges and universities to serving as anchor institutions, demonstrating that their success is inextricably linked to the psychological, social, health, economic, and educational well-being of those in the communities in which they are located and seek to serve. Visibility in the community is a prerequisite for establishing trust and credibility, particularly in circumstances when there is a dearth of information and deliberate disinformation campaigns are underway.

As with all constituencies, there should be a process in place for acknowledging and responding to concerns, using multiple vectors of communication, from town halls, emails, surveys, and newsletters to videos, livestreams, podcasts, and social media monitoring. Identifying the appropriate methods of communication and crafting messages tailored to specific audiences is essential for addressing the distinctive needs of diverse members of the community and fostering empowerment. Such communication emphasizes compassion and affirmation that the perspectives and experiences of others are understood and valued. It also focuses on empowering individuals to take personal responsibility by contributing to the conversation. For this reason, maintaining mechanisms for bilateral communication and providing feedback in response to specific concerns are basic to crisis communication plans.

This approach to crisis communication runs counter to previous models that called for concise, unidirectional, and prescribed messages that reified hierarchies by not accounting for the lived experience of diverse audiences. Yet recognizing the distinctive perspectives of different identity groups within stakeholders is particularly salient at a moment when persuasion relies more on creating a convincing story than on rational argument or facts. The result has been a paradigm shift away from a focus on logic and reason in messaging about crises in favor of values-based and emotionally driven narratives. The narrative paradigm, first proposed by Walter Fischer, doesn’t discount the value of truth and reason but posits that these alone are insufficient to persuade people (Caldiero 2007).

In the absence of narratives with which people can identify, the emotional bond necessary for the message’s acceptance is lacking. However, even when an emotional bond exists, audiences look for coherence and reliability that conform to their lived experience. The story must ring true. Therefore, a narrative approach to crisis communication must be accompanied by an exercise in sympathetic imagination to fully appreciate the range of experiences to which a non-monolithic audience can relate.

Joey King, former president of Lyons College in Arkansas, experienced the consequence of the misalignment between narrative and audience receptivity when he described Lyons and his previous campus, located in Appalachia, as bubbles “of inclusion and diversity surrounded by a sea of angry, disenfranchised populations and a large white-supremacist population.” The broader context for King’s comments didn’t matter to those in the community who considered the kinship that existed between town and gown now severed by what they viewed as a lack of fidelity. King was eventually forced to resign under pressure exerted on the board by the local mayor, judges, and CEOs belonging to the Chamber of Commerce (Kafka 2021).

King’s troubles recall the valuable lesson conveyed by Abraham Lincoln that “public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed” (Angle 1991, 128). Thus, one of the primary tasks for college presidents is to discern public sentiment as a means of determining what is possible in times of crisis and when to weigh in.

Deciding When to Weigh In

One of the most vexing challenges regarding crisis communication is determining when to make a public comment. A crisis the magnitude of a global pandemic that affects every aspect of college operations clearly warrants frequent and direct communication from the president. But what about the myriad other crisis situations both on and off campus presidents are called upon to address? Presidents should surely communicate around matters of local, national, or world import; in cases where events significantly affect students, faculty, and staff; and when the core mission of the institution is under threat.

Yet presidents should not feel responsible for authoring every communication. Sometimes, it is more appropriate for the Academic Dean or Vice President for Student Affairs to take a lead. Being proactive around identifying who will speak in response to different types of crises and who will manage the feedback loop is important to avoiding missteps. This should be accompanied by an ongoing assessment of which events are important to speak about, the values driving the statements, and the ways in which the college community is prepared to move beyond words in supporting the affected community. Presidents and planning teams must also consider whether the statement will set up expectations to speak out under all similar circumstances, whether those expectations can be met, and whether the statement will be perceived as discrimination against another group. Having a system in place for when the institution issues a statement, as well as a process and timeline, are imperative. These go hand in hand with identifying how leadership will respond to pushback against a statement.

Messaging When Institutional Values Collide

The firestorm over a series of statements issued by Hamline University around a campus controversy illustrates why this planning is so essential. An adjunct faculty member at the institution, who showed her art history class a fourteenth-century painting of the prophet Muhammad, was the subject of complaints to the dean by a Muslim student. Despite warnings on the syllabus, giving students the option to leave before the piece was displayed, an announcement in class, and an explanation of the pedagogical reasoning behind including the work in the course materials, the student, who was president of the Muslim Student Association, deemed the act Islamophobic. This perception was supported in a message to the community by the associate vice president for diversity, who characterized the incident as “undeniably inconsiderate, disrespectful, and Islamophobic” and announced an open forum on Islamophobia (Patel 2023). When the professor’s contract was not renewed for the spring semester, a national debate erupted over the limits of academic freedom in the context of institutional commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Three days after an article appeared in the New York Times, outlining outrage by academics and some Muslim groups over reports that the professor had been “fired,” the president issued a response defending their position, pointing to inaccuracies in the reporting, and calling for civility in the face of daily death threats to the administrative team and student involved. Within another two days, the Hamline University Board of Trustees announced that it was “actively involved in reviewing the University’s policies and responses to recent student concerns and subsequent faculty concerns about academic freedom” (Hamline University 2023). In the process, it reaffirmed that “upholding academic freedom and fostering an inclusive, respectful learning environment for our students are both required to fulfill our mission” (Hamline University 2023). Before a week was up, the professor filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging defamation and religious discrimination, prompting the president and board to issue a joint statement admitting that the use of the term “Islamophobic” was flawed (Hamline University 2023). A vote of no confidence in the president, who has since resigned, soon followed.

“We Will Learn from This and Do Better”

The Hamline case magnifies the necessity of anticipating and developing plans for responding to controversial messages. It is also a reminder of the need to understand what to include and avoid in an institutional apology. The historical context was important in this case. The campus is a few miles away from where motorist Philando Castile was killed by police in a routine traffic stop, in a community reeling from the murder of George Floyd, and one which serves a large population of Somalian refugees and an expanding Muslim population. This backdrop offers crucial context that was often excluded from the messaging and responses to it.

However, communications experts point out that it is critical in every case to avoid being defensive, using language more inflammatory than the original message, missing the point, adding insult to injury, and picking a fight. When a lawsuit is pending, admitting mistakes can be a challenge, but messages should convey what has been learned and outline action steps for doing better (Parrot 2023).

The Critical Role of Resilience

As we have learned from the crisis communications experiences of college and university presidents over the past few years, regardless of the message, effective communication requires having a credible voice to deliver a truthful and authentic message that both inspires confidence and furthers meaning making. This, in turn, demands resilience, or the ability to be adaptable and flexible in the face of adversity. Accepting uncertainty is crucial to leading through crises and calls for the fostering of resilience through the development of self-awareness around one’s own values and motivations. But this work doesn’t need to be done in isolation. Presidents should reach out to other campus leaders who experience similarly high levels of stress around crisis communications.

Day-to-day responsibilities can keep one from connecting with others and rehearsing open mind-sets, so time must be set aside. Equally important is keeping the institutional mission and values at the fore and weaving these into crisis communication planning processes and implementation (Liu, Lim, and Shi, et.al, 2021). When this is done, the immediate issues arising from a crisis can be addressed without abandoning long-term strategic thinking and planning necessary to sustain all institutions during these complex times.


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To Tell the Truth: Crisis Communication in A Post-Truth Era Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Lynn Pasquerella is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.