Lessons Learned from Crises’ Past

Crises are cyclical, what has happened once can happen again.

Just because history repeats itself doesn’t mean it has to replicate itself.

When it comes to crisis PR, many lessons can be learned from the experiences of others, which can serve as the basis of your crisis communications plan. However, the specifics of your plan should be tailored for your needs, your organization, and your community.

There’s no shortage of examples of crises that have befallen other institutions. When you see something happening in the news, as anybody who is part of a communications team, you should watch what others are doing, listen, and learn.

The Virginia Tech Massacre

The 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech happened right on the cusp of when social media and the 24/7 media environment was making its shift into what it is today.

AccessU faculty member Dr. Larry Hincker was the university’s chief communications officer at the time. For years, Hincker has talked about an important lesson from that day: the need to balance speed with accuracy. With the pace at which information is expected to be available online, it is so easy to publish information without understanding the impact that it’s going to have if even a small detail is inaccurate.

Just like the famous Spider-Man line, “With great power comes great responsibility,” social media holds people accountable. In the case of Virginia Tech, Hincker says his teams were communicating as much as they knew, when they knew it, as fast as they could, which at times made their jobs more difficult as they found themselves having to issue frequent corrections. Inaccuracies can blow up and further your crisis or create new crises for you. Have a plan in place, but know your facts before you post and be ready to correct misinformation when it appears.

The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Tenure Case

In the world of higher education, a tenure conversation happens every year. And the circumstances around this particular tenure denial at UNC-Chapel Hill got national attention. When trustees denied a proposal from New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, it sparked a heated debate over race, free speech, and academic freedom on campus. Black students and professors were distressed, some reconsidering their willingness to remain at the university over the Jones’ treatment.

These decisions are thought of as being super local, super administrative, something that would never really leave the bounds of your campus. But there can be cases where it turns into crisis mode because of the circumstances surrounding it.

The University of California San Francisco Cyber Attacks

Administrators at UCSF probably weren’t planning on spending over a million dollars to ransomware attackers. Plus, the hundreds of thousands paid to rectify the aftermath of the cyberattack and go on the defensive, pulling in consultants that they didn’t have on staff to help fix the issue. There’s a lot of different kinds of snowball effects a crisis can have. It can go beyond the walls of your community, or even to a national level, and get out of control fast.

The Bottom Line

You can’t prepare to the point that a crisis won’t occur, but when they do happen, even to others, you can learn from them and better your organization to keep your heads above the next wave.


About the Author

Rachel Spencer

Rachel’s expertise in strategic planning, qualitative research, brand messaging, public relations, and crisis communications has proven integral to AccessU for over 16 years. She began her career at a health and government-focused PR agency in Washington, DC, where she mastered the art of media relations. She later became the primary...

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