Commanding crisis communication control

The public relations tactics class at Harding had the unique opportunity to experience crisis communication in action on Wednesday, April 19.

For the last decade or so, officials at Harding University, in partnership with local agencies and organizations, have hosted a disaster drill on campus that tests the university’s and community’s preparedness for such a situation. In past years, drills have involved simulation of a pipe bomb, active shooter and dorm fire.

This year, the simulation tested preparedness for a bus accident carrying 60+ student-athletes in another state. The scene mimicked a car accident with two Harding vans and one Harding bus. Theater students acted as the injured students, nursing students practiced triage work and university officials practiced their readiness.

For our class, we watched from the sidelines as Harding’s Director of News Services Shelby Dias walked us through the communications and marketing office’s response.

The first response

According to Shelby, the first response comes within 30 minutes to an hour of the university’s knowledge of the crisis. The brief statement outlines what police and university officials know at the time. As a note of courtesy and professionalism, sometimes not all information is given due to sensitivity and notice to families. At this time, a script will go out to campus switchboard operators and office managers.

Hannah Owens, Harding’s director of digital media, added that control of the university’s social accounts is crucial in the first moments of the crisis. An email will go out to all social media managers letting them know of the situation and what to do with their social accounts.

The second response

The second response is more involved — more media and more information. Often times, police will give the initial statement due to the sensitivity of the crisis. Harding would give a follow-up statement regarding the university’s response, control and thoughts.

According to Jana Rucker, Harding’s vice president of communications and marketing, the more severe the crisis, the more important Harding’s spokesperson would be.

The basics of Crisis Communication 101

  • Never release information that is unknown or is sensitive (deaths, severe injuries, etc.) until proper channels (family, friends, etc.) have been notified.
  • Law enforcement should be the official source of casualty and injury count.
  • Social accounts related to the organization should be secured, and one account should be releasing information.
  • The crisis doesn’t end when everyone goes home. Be on alert for media and social mentions and develop a plan for restoring things back to normal post-crisis.
  • Control is everything. The more control you have on the message your brand is sending during the crisis, the better it gets handled. You never want to lose control and have multiple messages being dispersed.


Photo courtesy of Harding University