The Youngstown State University Crisis Communications Plan provides procedures for the coordination of communications both internally and externally in the event of a crisis situation. The plan outlines the roles, responsibilities and protocols to guide the university in sharing information with all of YSU’s audiences during an emergency or crisis.
The crisis communication plan is part of a larger set of plans to manage the university’s affairs during situations that threaten operations, the safety of the community and/or the reputation of YSU. This document focuses on the communications aspect of potential crisis situations. (Please also refer to YSU communications procedures under the federal Clery Act, specifically “Emergency Notifications” and “Timely Warnings,” attached as Appendix 1 and Appendix 2.)
This plan is not intended to change the manner in emergencies are initially reported. All emergencies on campus should be reported immediately to the YSU Police.
In all communications during a crisis, the university strives to be accessible, prompt, compassionate, honest and informative. While such tenets may seem to be self-evident, it can be difficult to adhere to a clear style of communication when in crisis mode. One of the most important requirements for effective communications during an urgent situation is gathering and understanding the facts and implications of a given situation and then providing accurate and consistent information to all parties concerned. Communications from the university must be honest and forthright. It is crucial in a crisis to tell it all, tell it fast and tell the truth.
Operational Definition of Crisis
For the purpose of this plan, the word crisis refers to:
A significant emergency, dangerous situation or disturbance in the university's activities which has the potential to have a significant impact on the university’s operations and public image and which results in extensive news coverage and public scrutiny.
A crisis includes serious threats to life, limb and/or property, significant threats to the university’s reputation, or serious threats of interruption to university business.
A crisis may include, but is not limited to: hostage situations, weather, disease or other health threat, fire, natural disaster, violent crime, civil disturbance, sexual or physical
assault, homicide and the threat of danger. (The federal Clery Act provides the following examples of significant emergencies or dangerous situations: fire, outbreak of a serious illness, earthquake, gas leak, terrorist incident, armed intruder, bomb threat, civil unrest or rioting, explosion, nearby chemical or hazardous waste spill.)
There is bound to be a degree of judgment required to determine whether any one or more of such threats are serious enough as to constitute a crisis.
Many crises occur quickly, without notice and may require immediate communications, particularly to students, employees and others on campus who are threatened or impacted by the crisis. As per the university’s Clery Act Emergency Notification procedures and YSU Alert Protocol, the YSU Police Department has the authority to assess the crisis at hand, determine what immediate communications is needed, and move forward to deliver that communication to the campus. For instance, if there is a major fire in an academic building, YSUPD would be responsible for initial communications (via YSU Alert and other means) with the campus.
Crisis Communications Team
In the event of a crisis, a core group of nine people will constitute the university’s Crisis Communications Team:
Vice President for Finance and Business Operations
General Counsel and Vice President, Legal Affairs and Human Resources
Associate Vice President, Student Experience
Associate Vice President, University Relations
Chief of Police
Director of University Communications/Public Information Officer
The team will develop a plan of action and oversee communications issues throughout the crisis. Depending on the nature of the crisis, others can and should be drawn into the crisis communications process as appropriate to address the specific issues and threats that need to be managed. The team will assess the situation and determine the facts of the crisis, determine the appropriate response/action, determine a plan of action for both internal and external communications, and assess what resources are necessary to manage the crisis.
The President has the primary responsibility for convening the Crisis Communications Team. If the President is not available to make the convening decision, then the Provost, Vice President for Finance and Business Operations, General Counsel and Vice President for Legal Affairs and Human Resources can make that decision.
The President, at any time, may convene the team if she/he confronts a situation that she/he deems to be a crisis as defined above. Any member of the Crisis Communications Team or the Tod Hall Leaders may also, upon discovery of a situation that she/he believes constitutes a
crisis (as defined above), recommend to the President that she/he convene the Team. At the time of convening the Team, the President should determine whether the nature of the crisis requires that additional individuals with special expertise be added to the Team. For example, in instances in which there are potential interruptions to university business, the President may wish to ask the Chief Technology Officer to join the Team. Or, if there is significant damage to buildings and/or property, the Executive Director of Facilities may be asked to join the Team.
All members of the Crisis Communication Team should have cell phones in their possession at all times. Upon the decision to convene the Team, the President will call the Associate Vice President for University Relations, who will call all other members of the team. Other individuals will be notified as needed.
If it is feasible to do so (depending on the time of day or night and/or any physical limitations of the situation), the team should gather together in person. The location of the team will depend on the severity of the crisis:
- In the event of a major campus crisis or disaster, particularly an event that is police-oriented, an Emergency Operations Center will be set up in the YSU Police Department. In such a situation, the YSUPD will become the center of all information for the crisis at hand; therefore, it is advisable that the Crisis Communications Team convenes at the YSU Police Department. The Police Department will dedicate space and resources (i.e. telephones and computers) for the Team in the PD during the crisis.
- In the event of a lesser crisis, or a crisis more of a public relations or administrative level, the Team will convene in the Leaders Conference Room in Tod Hall. (It is possible that the Team would first convene in Tod Hall and then move to the YSUPD as the crisis evolves, or vice versa.)
If it is not feasible to meet physically, the Team may be convened by telephone.
Responding to the crisis
Among the duties of the Crisis Communications Team:
- Assess the situation and determine the facts of the crisis.
- Create a plan of action for both internal and external communications.
- Determine what messages will be communicated and by whom.
- Determine to whom those messages will be communicated, both internally and externally. Among the key constituencies:
- Parents of students
- News media
- Public officials—Governor, Legislators, Mayors
- General Public
- Determine how those messages will be communicated.
- Determine how to react as the crisis evolves.
- Keep the appropriate spokespeople informed of the latest developments and messages to be conveyed.
The Team will develop several key messages to be included in all university communications. The messages will evolve as the crisis evolves and circumstances change. The messages must be communicated as quickly as possible and regularly updated.
The chief spokespeople in the event of a crisis will be a senior leader of the university, most likely the President, as well as the Director of University Communications/Public Information Officer.
- In most situations, the Director of University Communications/Public Information Officer will act as the chief spokesperson and will be the point person for news media communications during a crisis. He/she will organize and run press briefings and handle general media questions. In the event that the Director of University Communications/PIO is unavailable, another individual identified by the President and/or the Crisis Communications Team will act as the spokesperson. Depending on the nature of the crisis, the person possessing the direct knowledge of the crisis (for example: The chief of police in the event of a campus crime) can also be designated as spokesperson.
- In the time of a significant crisis, it is critical for a high-ranking leader of the university such as the President to become the face of the university and to take the lead in communicating key messages. Only a high-ranking leader such as the President can convey that a situation is under control, provide a sense of calm and set an example for the entire campus.
- The release of information and comments to the news media and the public should be limited to the designated spokespeople. All other staff should be professional and helpful to the news media by connecting them with the spokespeople, but should refrain from speaking to and providing any information. As the crisis evolves, it is likely that secondary spokespeople will need to be appointed.
Often the only information the public receives about an emergency is through the news media; therefore, media relations is an essential component of any crisis plan. Timing is critical. Responses to a crisis must be issued as soon as possible and along as many communications channels as possible. Remember that the news media is borderless and operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
In consultation with and the approval of the Crisis Communications Team, the Office of Marketing and Communications will develop appropriate statements and other communications for the news media. The Office will also arrange and lead news conferences and media briefings. Keeping the news media informed gives the university a certain amount of control over the message. The media's job is to report the latest information available. If reporters don't get that information directly from the organization in crisis, they will look elsewhere and be more likely to report inaccurate facts and even rumors. The location of news conferences and briefings may largely depend on the location and nature of the crisis. One location could be the Board of Trustees Meeting Room in Tod Hall. Ideally, however, the location should be away from the University’s administrative offices, including the President’s office. Other suitable locations could be the Chestnut Room or Ohio Room in Kilcawley Center or in larger areas in either Beeghly Center or Stambaugh Stadium.
Effective university crisis communications programs employ multiple and layered methods of communication with its constituencies, including students, employees, parents, alumni, trustees and community members. In the event of a crisis, the Crisis Communications Team can deploy one or all of these communications vehicles:
- YSU Alert allows the university to notify students and employees via text message and email. (Responsibility: YSU Police and Office of Marketing and Communications)
- Campus-wide mass communications and alarm system broadcasts emergency voice notifications targeted to specific buildings via loudspeaker. (Responsibility: YSU Police)
- YSU homepage, (Responsibility: Office of Marketing and Communications)
- Campus Alert website. In the event of a major campus crisis, the university has the capability of activating a pre-designed webpage that will provide up-to-the-minute
details of the crisis as it unfolds. (Responsibility: Marketing and Communications)
- Emergency Information Line (330-941-2222) will include updated information. (Responsibility: Office of Marketing and Communications)
- MyYSU portal. Through the portal, the university will post “Campus Announcements”, providing faculty, staff, students and the entire campus community with updates in the event of an emergency. (Responsibility: Office of Marketing and Communications)
- Campus Marquees. (Responsibility: Office of Marketing and Communications)
- Social media. Regular updates will be posted on the YSU Facebook, Twitter and other social media venues. (Responsibility: Office of Marketing and Communications)
- WYSU-FM. WYSU 88.5 (Ashtabula 90.1, New Wilmington 97.5) is the official radio source regarding information about university operations. In addition, WYSU can provide information on its website, www.wysu.org. WYSU has an extensive Disaster Response and Recovery Plan that includes a backup generator and a backup transmitter and studio at Stambaugh Stadium. With these capabilities, WYSU could be a 24/7, real time, interactive critical source of information to the campus and the community in the event of a major crisis.
- News media. The university has a detailed news media call list that would be activated in the event of an emergency. (Responsibility: Office of Marketing and communications)
The offices/departments listed as responsible for each of these communications vehicles are responsible for developing individual implementation plans for each of the vehicles.
Awareness, Training and Assessment
It is imperative that all members of the Crisis Communications Team, Tod Hall Leaders and others on campus are familiar with the details of this plan prior to a campus crisis. The team should also undergo regular training, including running simulations in the actual use of the plan’s procedures and principles, and the training of spokespeople in communicating with the media during crisis moments. Routine simulation training should be provided.
Finally, the Crisis Communications Team should meet at least once after the emergency situation has subsided to assess the university’s handling of the situation and to make future recommendations to streamline and improve its procedures and communications tools.
The Crisis Communications Plan was initially developed in December 2007 as recommendations to the President and President’s Cabinet. The Plan was developed by a Crisis Communications Planning Group, chaired by the Vice President of University Advancement. The Office of Marketing and Communications modified the Plan in October 2008. The plan was revamped in June 2011 and updated again in March and September 2012. This version was updated in January 2016.
Notification to the YSU community about an Immediate Threat
YSU will immediately notify the campus community upon confirmation of a significant emergency or dangerous situation involving an immediate threat to the health or safety of students or employees occurring on the campus. Examples of significant emergencies or dangerous situations are: fire, outbreak of a serious illness, approaching extreme weather condition (i.e. tornado), earthquake, gas leak, terrorist incident, armed intruder, bomb threat, civil unrest or rioting, explosion, nearby chemical or hazardous waste spill.
In the event of a potential emergency situation, the YSU Police Department (YSUPD) will consult with the Office of the President and/or the Provost and/or the Vice President for Student Affairs and confirm that there is an emergency or dangerous situation that poses an immediate threat to the health or safety of some or all members of the YSU community.
YSUPD and/or the Office of Marketing and Communications will collaborate to immediately notify the campus community of the situation. YSUPD and/or M&C will, without delay and taking into account the safety of the community, determine the content of the notification and initiate the notification system, unless issuing a notification will, in the judgment of the first responders (including, but not limited to YSUPD, Youngstown Police Department, Youngstown Fire and Emergency Medical Services), compromise the efforts to assist a victim or to contain, respond to, or otherwise mitigate the emergency.
YSUPD and/or M&C will use some or all of the systems described below to communicate the threat to the YSU community or to the appropriate segment of the community, if the threat is limited to a particular building or segment of the population. The entire campus community will be notified when there is at least the potential that a very large segment of the community will be affected by a situation, or when a situation threatens the operation of the campus as a whole. The situation will be continually assessed to determine if additional segments of the campus should be notified.
Some or all of the following notification methods will be used:
- YSU Alert emergency text messages and emails.
- YSU campus-wide mass communications and alarm voice broadcast system.
- YSU homepage.
- Campus Announcements channel of the MyYSU portal.
- YSU Emergency Information Line (330-941-2222).
- University Facebook and Twitter pages.
- WYSU 88.5 FM, the official radio source of YSU.
Members of the larger community outside campus will receive information about a campus emergency via many of the same methods listed above. In addition, the University will disseminate information via local news media (TV, radio and newspaper).
Those responsible for carrying out the actions above include:
- Confirmation of an emergency:YSUPD in consultation with the Office of the President and/or the Provost and/or the Vice President for Student Affairs.
- Content of message/segment of campus to be notified: YSUPD and/or Office of Marketing and Communications.
- Initiation of the notification system: YSU PD and/or Office of Marketing and Communications.
Issuing Timely Warnings
YSU will issue a Timely Warning to the campus community in the event of crimes (i.e. murder and non-negligent manslaughter, negligent manslaughter, sex offenses, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, motor vehicle theft and arson) and other situations that, in the judgment of the Chief of the YSU Police Department (YSUPD) or his/her designee, constitutes a serious or continuing threat to students or employees. In determining if a Timely Warning should be issued, the Police Chief will consider the nature of the crime, the continuing danger to the campus community, and the possible risk of compromising law enforcement efforts.
Timely Warnings will be distributed by one or all of the following methods:
- Sent via e-mail and/or text message to subscribers of Penguin Alert.
- Posted on the Campus Announcements channel of the MyYSU portal.
- Posted on Crime Prevention Bulletin Boards in buildings across campus.
The Timely warnings will provide the following information if possible:
- The date the alert was issued.
- A succinct statement of the incident.
- Physical description of the suspects.
- Other relevant and important information.
Timely Warnings will be issued for circumstances that occur on campus, on public property within or immediately adjacent to the campus, and in or on non-campus buildings or property that YSU owns or controls.
Anyone with information warranting a Timely Warning should report the circumstances to the YSUPD at 330-941-3527.
Crisis Communications Best Practices for YSU Social Media
If you are aware of an emergency situation on campus, contact the YSU Police first (330-941-3527), and then the Marketing and Communications office (330-941-3519). Do not post about the situation on social media until official messaging is released from the university. During an emergency situation on campus, official posts regarding the crisis will come from four accounts:
1. Youngstown State University Facebook page
2. Youngstown State University Twitter account (or @youngstownstate)
3. YSU Police Facebook page
4. YSU Police Twitter account (or @ysupolice)
If you control an official social media page of the university, look for these posts and update your own page(s) by sharing or retweeting posts from any of these four accounts. Do not try to craft your own message or retype the message on your own. Sharing the exact post from YSU's accounts or the Police's accounts will help ensure that a unified campus message is presented. In addition, during an emergency on campus, be sure to:
* Check to make sure that no content is scheduled to be posted on your YSU social media accounts until the end of the emergency. If content is scheduled, delete it.
* Refrain from posting to your YSU social media sites after sharing official messaging/posts.
* Refrain from engaging with followers during this time so that timelines do not get cluttered. This gives important updates more of a chance of being seen.
* If you receive private messages on your YSU accounts, reply by referring the individual to the main university sites or the YSU Police sites for information.
Contact: Ross Morrone, Director of Marketing, 330-941-1424.