A crisis by any other name…

Opportunity knocks

Every June, the communicators working for the Big Ten schools — or should I say the Big Eighteen — gather as a collective to collaborate and commiserate about the challenges and opportunities that come with a job in higher education. The annual event attracts about a hundred writers, editors, marketers, and public relations experts who are well-versed in all things university: branding campaigns, rising costs, research budgets, Title IX issues, and so on. In 2024, we welcomed four new members to the ranks: The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of Southern California, the University of Oregon, and the University of Washington.

One slot on the otherwise fluid conference agenda remains constant each year. It’s the dreaded “crisis panel” in which some unlucky member school shares best practices, internally and externally, after enduring an especially difficult, public, and often controversial experience on their campus. Over the years, our colleagues have walked us through the minute-by-minute strategic communications response to all sorts of emergencies, tragedies, and scandals. As a member of the audience — and not a speaker — one can only think: “There but for the grace of god go we.”

In 2024, we didn’t have that luxury: There were too many crises from which to choose. Thus, the panel played out as a group therapy session, which was simultaneously comforting and disheartening. Misery may love company, but not that much company. The bottom line was less than reassuring and delivered no answers, roadmaps, or simple solutions. All we can do is prepare for every possible contingency, run through “table-top” exercises in anticipation of who-knows-what, and wait for some highly anticipated “lessons learned” to reveal themselves before the next hot-button issue explodes.

Ideally, each crisis will present a fabulous opportunity for growth, understanding, and progress. Thus, it’s our job to keep listening for opportunity’s knock. Unlike crisis, it only comes once before the door slams shut.

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