Crisis management must target 'quiet catastrophes'

Acting collegially is key to the sector's health, says a troubleshooting expert. John Gill reports

April 3, 2008

When three students died in a three-week period in a meningitis outbreak at the University of Southampton a decade ago, it was one of the worst health crises ever to have hit a UK university.

Coping with the inevitable demands for information as the tragedy unfolded was also a major communications challenge, and Peter Reader was at the heart of the university's response.

Now director of marketing and communications at the University of Portsmouth - the sixth university he has worked at - Mr Reader is a recognised expert on crisis management, and on the rapidly developing area of "business continuity" within higher education.

Speaking to Times Higher Education before he addressed the Association of University Administrators conference this week, he said that universities must put aside their competitive rivalries over reputation and openly share experiences of crises in order to develop successful strategies.

"I'm well aware that some in the sector - even senior managers - would argue that universities don't have brands, but I vehemently disagree. Of course they have brands.

"The founder of Amazon said that a brand is how someone describes you when you've left the room, and the potential for damage if you handle something badly can be huge.

"Universities ... understand they have to get their processes right, but also that if they don't get them right they can double the damage, and we can even damage each other as universities.

"At last year's AUA conference I saw people coming in with the title 'business continuity manager' for the first time, so a lot more is being done to develop good practice.

"The interesting thing is that the sector can act collegially, because you're not going to get a competitive advantage here, you are going to protect your own organisation as well by learning from what others are doing and sharing that information.

"We all know that universities are becoming more competitive, but this is an area where collegiality can still work to the advantage of the whole sector," he said.

While the meningitis outbreak at Southampton was an extreme example, Mr Reader said serious reputational damage could be done in far less dramatic fashion.

"Crises that may seem rather minimal can grow," he said. "There's a quote that I like: 'While bombs, fires and floods may capture the headlines, almost 90 per cent of crises are quiet catastrophes, and it is the quiet catastrophes that have the potential to damage an organisation's most valuable asset - its brand and reputation.'

"They affect everyone in an institution - the communicator is at the front end taking the phone calls, but there are also fundamental organisational issues for university managers."

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