No matter how buoyant academic life is most of the time, every college is likely to face a situation where an unforeseen crisisforces it to literally sink or swim. How the crisis is handled can make or break the institution’s reputation. And like it or not, the media is a major factor which has to be dealt with.

I’m in PR so I would say that, wouldn’t I? But the fact is the media has needs and if we can help them do their job, they can help us do ours.

When a crisis becomes public it happens in four phases. Each phase is predictable so you should plan your reactions and pro-actions accordingly because with 24-hour news, social media and citizen journalism the first few hours are critical. And bear in mind not everyone is helpful, some may want to take advantage of the crisis and once the ‘proverbial’ hits the fan and the sharks scent blood, if you fail to handle events quickly and effectively the waters will indeed be bloody.  So phase one can be summed up as:

1. Breaking news: Understanding the crisis
Find out exactly what’s going on. You need to understand whose life is in the balance, who will survive and who’s feeding the frenzy. Get the facts, understand how big the crisis is, make a plan and quickly map the likely outcomes. Start from worst case scenario and work backwards. The sharks may be circling but they haven’t attacked anyone yet.

2. Adjust the focus: Reassure the swimmers
Once you fully understand the ‘what happened’, move onto phase two. You need to know how it was for the ‘people in the water,’ what was the damage, how it’s being resolved and who’s controlling the sharks?

This is the time to monitor social media and respond appropriately, be as open as you can, but be careful once the college has spoken on the matter because then it’s out there in the public domain.

Be aware that at this stage stakeholders are desperate for reassurance. They want to be told that whatever circumstances and decisions led to this crisis, it cannot under any circumstances, happen again.

But you need to be realistic too  – and manage expectation. For example if a student fell off the college roof by accident, you can put up barriers and warnings. But if a student is determined enough to jump off the roof no matter what college measures are in place, there is little you can do and you have to be honest enough to say so.

You can’t stop students (or staff for that matter) using knives, taking drugs or engaging in any dangerous or criminal activity when not on campus. But you can make it difficult for students on campus and these are the things you need to communicate. However, if the event is something close to corporate manslaughter then your responsibility and messages must change. These two points are the ones  you need to be on top of in the vital first few hours when dealing with the media.

This second stage of the crisis can last anything from a few hours to a few days, so it’s essential you get an accurate picture and make sure all lines of communication are open. Remember the media has a job to do and may well run with statements from anyone who appears to be in the know or even moderately informed, however inaccurate or ill-informed they turn out to be.

3. Take control: Don’t point the finger
As other people may try and shift the blame onto you, you in turn may be tempted to try and shift the blame onto someone else. You need to get this phase right because by now everyone wants to know the ‘why’s and ‘wherefores’ and who is at fault. It’s human nature.

Your college’s values will guide you how to act here and if not, your own should. There may be legal implications, so when defending your institution, do that, don’t attack another – leave that to the lawyers or Health and Safety. Your job is to manage your college’s reputation, not trash another’s.

4. Resolution
During the final phase the mechanics of resolving the crisis should unfold. Once the full extent of the crisis is understood, media interest will start to fade, provided more victims don’t wash up on the shore. So, unless there is another shark attack, people will go back to their normal lives and your college will have survived, provided you have used your first few hours wisely.

Now’s the time to draw breath and work out when/if there will be a court case because if there is, it’s all going to be raked up again – and you need to be prepared for any future shark attacks.

Remember, in these digital days, bad news doesn’t disappear, it’s always there waiting for someone to re discover it and all they have to do is Google.

Ruth Sparkes, PR and Media Consultant ruth@empra.co.uk and tweeting as @empra