That Was Unexpected! How to Prepare for a Crisis and How to Respond
Podcast January 24, 2020
Scott Summerfield is a principal of SAE Communications, an organization that has provided communications counsel, media relations, and Joint Information Center management for many of California’s most challenging recent crises, including the 2019 Conception dive boat tragedy, 2017 Thomas fire, and 2014 Isla Vista shootings. In this episode, Scott and Cheryl discuss the challenges of dealing with crisis situations as well as the best practices for handling crisis communications.
Scott’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org
SAE Communications website: saecommunications.com
Hi, this is Cheryl Broom, president of Interact Communications. If you haven’t already dealt with a crisis on your campus, I can guarantee you, you will. You see, colleges are like cities. We have everything from childcare centers to police departments to cafeterias. Some of you even have housing. Showers for the homeless? Yeah, that’s part of what California community colleges provide. Serving as evacuation centers during times of emergencies. Many of you have already done that. And scandals involving stolen money, sexual harassment, drugs, crime. Yes, yes, and yes. Anything and everything that can go wrong in a city can go wrong on a college campus. That’s why it’s absolutely imperative that you prepare, prepare, prepare. Today, we have a real treat, a crisis communication expert who has made it his life’s work to prepare colleges, government agencies, and school districts for emergencies and also to assist them in handling crises.
Scott Summerfield is a principal of SAE Communications. SAE has provided communications counsel, media relations, and joint information center management for many of California’s most challenging crises. Scott also advises on emerging issues such as cyberattacks and evolving public records act requests. Scott’s work includes strategic communications, key message development and training, and crisis communications for a wide range of organizations including cities, universities, community colleges, ports, and the list just goes on and on. Scott’s a past president and lifetime member of the California Association of Public Information Officials and winner of the CAPIO Paul Clark award. He serves on multiple boards and as a guest lecturer at the USC Annenberg School of Communication. I have personally worked with Scott on multiple projects and multiple crises and can attest to his deep and varied expertise in all things crisis communications. So, welcome, Scott. Thanks so much for joining me.
Thank you, Cheryl. Happy to be here.
Yeah, so let’s start off. Tell me a little bit about SAE Communications, your background, how you started the organization, what you do. You have an absolutely amazing career and you’ve dealt with some pretty high-profile crises and events and I’d love to hear more about that.
Yeah, and the fun thing about this work is you never quite know what you’re going to be working on in any given week. So it’s something different all the time. My business partner and I have been working with local government agencies for about two and a half decades. Just about every type of issue you could think of. We both come out of local government, so we understand the nuances of public agencies, the differences between public sector communication and private sector communication—and there are a lot of nuances and it’s sometimes tough to identify them in the midst of a crisis—and believe we’ve built a reputation for being creative, being nudges, and sometimes providing the advice that may be difficult to hear that we believe ultimately will serve the college or the agency well. So it’s fascinating. What’s particularly gratifying about our work is the communications environment is changing in front of our eyes. I don’t think anybody could have predicted a decade ago where we would be, so we can either communicate the old-school way or change things up and recognize people are receiving information and expect information differently today.
Yeah. I definitely want to talk to you more, maybe later in the show, about those changes and the importance of transparency, but before we get there, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the type of crises that you’ve handled and why you’ve chosen just to focus on the public sector.
Well, my business partner and I both spent time in the public sector, several years on staff supporting a variety of departments, and while we have also done work in the private sector, we keep coming back to the public sector because that’s where our true passion lies. We do a lot of work with local government because that is the level of government that touches people most frequently, and most importantly, it’s sometimes tough to understand the role of the federal government, state government in your life, but local agencies, local institutions like community colleges affect everyone and are a part of a rich community life. So that’s been our focus and we’ve taken our public sector experience, we’ve also taken our experience in the private sector and blended it together to bring a service to local agencies that we appeal serves them well.
Now, you’ve done work specifically with community colleges, I know. You and I worked together when I worked at a college. What type of issues have you helped colleges with?
We’ve worked on a variety of issues, what we call crises of confidence—the people-caused issues that can turn a college upside down just as quickly as a natural disaster. Embezzlement of funds, that had some interesting twists and turns to it. We’ve worked with a college on a senior staff member using an inappropriate word in a public setting that caused quite a bit of concern on the campus. We’ve worked with trustees that are new to a highly visible public position, helping them understand how they can best deliver their message in a very public setting. First Amendment issues seem to be increasing in frequency, not only on four-year campuses, but on community college campuses as well. And the college’s response to a protest or other First Amendment issue can really influence the public’s perception of that college for many years to come. So it’s important to get ahead of that quickly.
Also housing, particularly here in California, some colleges are considering building dorms, looking at other creative solutions to provide housing for students and that may not always be something that the nearby neighborhood looks at as valuable. So there is a communications component to that as well. Homelessness, again, an issue facing the entire country, particularly here on the West Coast. You mentioned that earlier and that is something we’re dealing with more frequently as well. So, a variety of issues. Each one has their own nuances, their own specific steps that seem to make the most sense. Fortunately, we’re finding colleges and universities increasingly willing to invest in the resources to communicate well around the issue and to get ahead of it before it spirals out of control.
It’s really interesting, because all of the things that you’ve listed that you’ve worked on are all what you call “people-caused issues” and I call them the same thing, “human-caused emergencies.” And I feel like a lot of our colleges do a really good job preparing for kind of natural disaster emergencies. Like, they do drills around power outages or what’s going to happen if we have a fire or an earthquake or tornado, but they don’t seem to do a lot to prepare for what you call these people-caused issues and that’s what I call them, human-caused emergencies. And those are the things that you’ve mentioned before. Things like lawsuits, misuse of funds, scandals, First Amendment issues. How does a college prepare for those type of emergencies?
The single most effective thing that a college can do is to have a crisis communications plan in place. And that’s not a plan that is borrowed from another college or another agency, but one that truly reflects the available staffing, the geography, the resources that are available to the college, that truly reflects what will be necessary to communicate effectively when something happens. They typically will include key messages for a variety of issues that can face the college, what we call “holding statements,” things that we can say “we don’t really know what happened yet,” but the media has descended upon the college. It identifies spokespeople. It identifies all the various communications tools that the college has. It includes every password for social media channels. Inevitably, something happens when the college’s primary communicator is away from campus or on vacation, so staff several levels deep needs to be trained on what is in the plan and how to respond. Just having that plan in place will allow the college to, in the very first moments of a crisis, communicate much more effectively than winging it or trying to communicate on the fly.
I love that you mentioned a holding statement. One of the key lessons that I took away from emergency at the college I worked at is we had—and this wasn’t a human-caused emergency… Well, I guess it was. Somebody hit a water line and the whole college lost all water and then all the electricity went out. So all of our classes were without water and without electricity. And we, you know, we didn’t have a crisis communications plan in place. We knew that we all needed to go down to the control center and meet and discuss and it took us like a half an hour to figure out just what to say. And in the meantime, everybody was sitting in dark classrooms. We didn’t have that holding statement ready to go. So it took a while to write it, and then we had to disseminate it, and there was a lot of confusion, and people were angry, and they were literally and figuratively in the dark. So I love that idea of having something ready to go.
Yeah, sadly that’s not unusual. You have an expectation amongst your students, faculty, staff that the college will communicate immediately, and when that doesn’t happen, there’s a lot of frustration. The other kind of related piece of that is we become very reliant on electronic communication: using Twitter, using Facebook, Nextdoor, all the communications channels we have, yet, you know, on many campuses there is a significant senior or mature student population that may not have access to and doesn’t use those tools. So a robust crisis communications plan will recognize there are a number of different audiences that receive information in a variety of ways and we need to make sure we touch each one of those.
Now, how do you go about writing a plan like this?
The piece of plan creation that takes the most time and yields the best information is research. When we do a plan, we interview dozens of internal and external sources to learn about what their expectations are for communicating during the crisis, to learn what resources are in the community beyond what the college has, to understand what tools our communications partners have, for example, local law enforcement, police or sheriff, fire agencies, business organizations, school districts. That piece takes quite a bit of time, but an effective plan, one that really represents the college’s needs when something serious happens is going to be only workable if it reflects a true understanding of what the community can provide and what they expect.
So, yeah, it sounds like it’s really important not to just borrow your neighboring college’s plan and then change your college name.
Yeah, we’ve seen that. You know, somebody will put out a request on a listserv: “Hey, does anybody have a crisis communications plan we can borrow?” And, you know, kudos to the requesting college for understanding they need one, but inevitably, when they need it most, it’s not going to serve their needs.
Right. And if you’re not involved in actually writing the plan and researching the plan, then it’s just a document on the shelf, and when a crisis comes, you pull it out and you don’t even know really or understand what’s in it.
And the ancillary benefit of that is by interviewing internal sources, administration, leadership, those that have a number of roles around the college, you get buy-in to the plan very early on, and that that’s important as well.
Definitely. Now, I know that your organization, SAE, also, besides helping with the plan writing and the formation and the research, you also help train your spokespeople, your key executives, your college president, your PIO, you do on-site simulated television and print interviews. Tell me a little bit about how that works and why that’s important.
Yes. One of the important pieces of the plan is knowing who your spokesperson will be, and there isn’t one answer to that. It could be the president of the board of trustees. It could be the chancellor. It could be the president of one of the colleges in a multi-college district. It could be the chief communicator or the public information officer. So, identifying spokespeople is step one. The follow-up is working with them so they understand how the media environment is changing, understanding how attention spans are shrinking dramatically, how the use of academic jargon and bureaucratic language will work against them rather than for them. When we do the training, it’s done in a really supportive manner. We will often combine on-camera training with simulated telephone interviews, recognizing that, you know, the vast majority of interviews that a communicator will conduct are on the phone with either a print or online reporter or sometimes radio. There are nuances to each type of interview, but we find once somebody has been through that training and understands how to succeed in an interview, their confidence goes up dramatically and they will be a much more effective spokesperson when something happens.
Yeah. I actually went through some emergency training when I— I used to work for a sheriff’s office. I was the public information officer for their law enforcement department and they sent me to on-camera training. And I had been a news reporter, so I was very used to being on camera, but never on the other side, never answering questions, and it was really eye opening to, A) get grilled and then, B) watch myself. It was really a really valuable experience and helped me be much better and more confident in interviews, especially on-camera ones.
It’s really different, isn’t it?
Yes, it was painful.
We’re seeing a lot of former journalists kind of come over to the other side and move into the public information officer role in local agencies. Sometimes it’s local colleges and universities. Some make the transition easily. Some have a little bit more trouble with it because, as you noted, it is very different on the other side of that microphone.
Yes. It was not pretty. But it was so valuable. It was probably one of the most valuable things that I did during my role in that job because I was on camera a lot. Probably a lot more than our colleges are, because in law enforcement it’s much more sensationalized. You know, crimes are happening, so I had to be on camera a lot, and it was so helpful. I really recommend that for our colleges, especially because a lot of the presidents or your spokespeople, they might be fantastic public speakers, but it is a very different trait and you have to have a really different approach when you’re being interviewed.
The nuances are very different and they’re two extremely diverse settings. In both settings, though, whether it’s in front of a group of people or in a media interview, we help spokespeople understand that attention spans have shrunk so much that we need to say what we’re going to say, get the information out, focus on the message as quickly as possible, and that is going to continue to be an important factor in effective communications as we go ahead.
Yeah, exactly. You know, it’s interesting you bring up attention spans, I think automatically of Twitter and having to condense your key messages into really short, impactful snippets. What else has changed in terms of crisis communication over the last decade or so?
The biggest change is the increased reliance on electronic communication, and we talked earlier about some of the challenges of that for members of the campus community that don’t access electronic communication. So, sometimes old-school methods of communicating need to be part of the mix as well. The lack of attention spans probably is the biggest driver in how we’ve changed how we communicate. And, as you noted, it’s a lot tougher to craft a good 280-character tweet than it is a two-or-three-hundred-word press release. But we don’t have the luxury of using a lot of words. The other piece of crisis communications that has changed significantly is a much greater use of visuals, both infographics and video. We can talk about this for hours, but the bottom line is people don’t read and don’t have the time or take the time to read a lot of words. So if we communicate the old way with our emphasis on a lot of words, the public will tune us out. So, very well crafted infographics, 60-to-90-second videos that have to be captioned. That is probably the most significant change in the toolbox that we have available during the crisis.
No. Yeah, that’s fascinating. You know, we think about that for marketing and we teach that for marketing because students want to see video. It has to be captioned cause they don’t have the sound on social media, and I hadn’t thought about using kind of those marketing principles in a crisis communication setting.
Yeah. It’s fascinating for us that do this every day, because we’re continually evolving the mix that we use. If anybody in a setting like this or any other training setting says they’ve got the right answer, they know the optimal mix of traditional media and social media, the perfect blend of tools, I don’t think they’re being truthful. Nobody has it all figured out. That’s what makes it interesting for us to do this, and what is right today may not be right a year or two from now. We think it’s kind of fun, but it requires both somebody working with the college as well as college administration and communicators to be flexible and to be open to changing the way that they do business.
Definitely, yeah. And, you know, I was reading your website and you have some really fantastic articles on there. So, for any of the listeners wanting to get more information or to read some more of Scott’s writings, definitely go to his website. He has a lot of articles, blog posts, some really good tips on there as well. And before we were talking, I was reading one of your articles that was called “Crisis in City Hall” and I really liked your three principles discussed in the article that I really liked and they’re really simple. It was “tell the truth,” “taxpayers have a right to know,” and “residents must have confidence in the city.” And I thought about our community colleges and I think that’s exactly, you know, the same three principles on a community college: tell the truth and be transparent, our communities have a right to know, and our community has to have confidence in our college. And these seem so straightforward, but our public officials tend to ignore them. And I know some of the leaders that I’ve worked with in the past, no matter how fantastic they are, it’s kind of like a human instinct to protect yourself, to say as little as possible, to hope that it all goes away. So how do you work with your clients to get them to stick to these three tenants?
We find that being very direct but in a professional and respectful way can sometimes open senior leadership’s eyes to the perils of not communicating effectively. The old way of saying “no comment” or not returning a reporter’s email or phone call just doesn’t work anymore. Nothing stays secret anymore. Those days are long gone, and if somebody thinks that by ignoring a bubbling crisis, something that is likely to emerge, that it will go away, they are almost invariably mistaken. Social media can drive discussion and drive transparency in ways that we didn’t experience in the past, and that’s a good thing. The public does have a right to know. Some of my toughest moments as a communicator were in discussions with legal counsel around what we could say, and the traditional approach in many cases was “no comment.” Don’t say anything. Don’t be part of the story. What’s interesting is we’re beginning to see a generational shift in both college leadership as well as legal counsel. Those coming into those senior roles now tend to be more knowledgeable about the power of media, both traditional and social, in driving public perception, and there is less of an immediate reaction to just say “no comment” and a greater willingness to listen to communications counsel and understand the risks of not being part of the story. We’re not there yet, but we’re seeing things move in what we feel is a positive way.
I know we have that rule, never say “no comment,” right? We know that as communicators, but there are times where it’s really difficult to craft a statement when you can’t say anything. Maybe it’s a personnel issue or it’s an ongoing investigation and you’re legally not allowed to say much. In those cases, what advice could you give colleges to craft some sort of statement so they’re not saying “no comment,” but they are still communicating with their news media and the community.
There is always something you can say, and that’s the beauty of having your messages in place and having your holding statements in place. Of course, you can’t talk about the specific nuances of an employee relations issue, but a thoughtful and strategic discussion as part of the team that includes the college president, that includes legal counsel, that includes perhaps the HR director or finance director, can lead to a statement, a message that doesn’t affect privacy or confidentiality, but can still give the public confidence that the college is approaching the issue in an effective and responsible way. We will often see things left at “no comment,” which, you know, as you and I both know, the moment somebody hears that, it implies guilt, it implies opaqueness, and the public increasingly will not stand for that, nor should they. So there’s always something that you can say. It’s the communicator’s role to set up a process to figure out what that is.
And I really liked that you recommend that those type of statements be pre-crafted or at least thought through in your communication plan. You don’t just wait for a crisis to happen when you figure out what you possibly could say.
You can’t do it on the fly and you certainly can’t plan on the fly. You know, in today’s media world, if it’s a big issue, reporters will be on site and trying to connect with you immediately, and your staff and your own resources and time are going to be greatly reduced. So having all of these elements in place ahead of time will allow for a much more effective response.
And before we wrap up the discussion, I’ve seen you speak a number of times and you always do a fantastic job telling the audience, giving them examples of things that have gone really wrong or things that have gone really well. Can you share with us something that you’ve worked on that was handled well, that had a positive outcome?
Yeah. It’s always gratifying when you see agency, whether it’s a college, a university, a city, or a county, understand the value of having counsel, listening to them, and seeing that the media coverage reflects a thoughtful approach. We’ve had several First Amendment issues where the college’s response could have gone very differently if we hadn’t approached that from a very strategic perspective, having our messages in place, understanding what the First Amendment implications are, understanding everybody’s role, knowing who the spokesperson will be. On the flip side, it’s always frustrating to see something play out in the media that when you watch it externally, you kind of point to several places where if they, the college had done something just a little bit differently, the story would have turned out or gone in a very different direction. It takes a commitment from college leadership, starting at the top, to send a message throughout the organization that communications is important, that we value openness and transparency with those that we serve and that we will devote whatever the appropriate resources are to plan for anything that may come our way.
I think you’ve left us a lot to think about, some really fantastic tips. For those people who are interested in learning more either about your services or just learning more about crisis communications, do you have some good resources you can point them to?
Yeah. Our website, SAEcommunications.com, has a number of documents and other resources on it. There are also public sector communications organizations that can be a wonderful resource, not only in keeping up on the changing dynamics of the communications world that we live in, but connecting with others that have likely faced crises very similar to what you may be dealing with. There is a huge benefit in establishing relationships with other communicators that live in the same space you do, that deal with the same type of issues, and particularly with others in your nearby geographic area. Building a base of peers that you can count on when something happens. There may be a crisis that affects your college but doesn’t affect other nearby colleges and having a cadre of peers in place that can lend a hand in media relations and some of the other tasks that are necessary can be hugely helpful when you face your own crisis.
Great advice. Well, I’m going to ask you one more question. This was always my favorite question to ask when I was a reporter and I always got the best answers. So this might be something that listeners can prepare for, ‘cause I think almost every reporter asks it. So, Scott, do you have anything else to add?
The single most helpful thing that we’ll allow a college to communicate in what may be its worst moments is to have a plan in place—one that is truly reflective of the college, that encompasses every department, every aspect of campus life—that will serve you well when you face your own crisis. It’s not a matter of if, it’s when, but you can do quite a bit to prepare yourself.
Well, thank you so much. Spoken like a true communication expert. I love talking to you. Thank you always for your counsel. Scott has counseled me on a number of different issues. Even when we hadn’t hired you, I would always give you a call and run ideas by you, and I want to thank you for always being so available and willing to do that.
Really enjoyed talking with you, Cheryl.
Well, thank you so much, Scott. And please check out his website. Give him a call. I’ll also put some information on how to reach Scott in our show notes so that you can have that as well. And with that, that wraps up this episode of Community College Marketing MasterClass. Thank you so much for joining us. I’m Cheryl Broom with Interact Communications, and I’ll catch you next time.