Crisis Communication: Keeping Parents and Family Members of Students in the Loop // written by Anne Newman & Kathy Adams Riester

Anne Newman
Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Kathy Adams Riester
University of Arizona

Student Affairs professionals are called upon to address a myriad of student issues and concerns on a regular basis.  While any number of incidents and concerns can cause stress, a campus crisis disrupts campus operations, impacts the welfare of community members, and impedes our ability to help college students.  Crisis incidents also affect off campus stakeholders, including parents and family members. Therefore, it is important to talk about how we should communicate with parent and family members before, during, and after a campus crisis.

The purpose of this article is to share thoughts and promising practices regarding communicating with parents and family members about crisis incidents on campus.  We draw upon the available literature regarding campus crisis and what we know about family expectations regarding campus communication to provide some thoughts regarding crisis communication with parent and family members.  We provide some examples based on our campus experiences regarding communicating with families during and after a crisis. At the end of the article we provide reflection questions to help start the dialogue on your campus regarding crisis communication planning. 

Defining Crisis, Critical Incident, Emergency, and Disaster

Before discussing crisis communication best practices, it is important to understand what constitutes a campus crisis and what levels of campus crisis exist.  Zdziarski (2006) defines campus crisis as “… an event, which is sudden or unexpected, that disrupts the normal operations of the institution or its educational mission and threatens the well-being of personnel, property, financial resources, and/or reputation of the institution” (p. 5).  In essence, crisis situations seriously impact the campus community because life is significantly disrupted. Campus resources, campus property, personnel, and students are all affected.  

The media often come to campus to provide their interpretation of the incident, broadcasting the news of the emergency far and wide.  An institution’s reputation can certainly be influenced by what happened and whether or not the event was something that could have been prevented (Rollo & Zdziarski, 2007).  Family members are often concerned and invested when crisis incidents happen on campus. The disruption to campus impacts their children who are our students. In addition, family members are concerned with the institution’s ability to keep their children safe.  How we address crisis situations and communicate our response is therefore important to parents and family members.

Zdziarski, Rollo, and Dunkel (2007) classify crisis situations based on the level of impact the crisis has on the institution.  Impact to the campus is determined by looking at the level of crisis, the type of crisis, and the intentionality of the crisis. Zdziarski et al. define three types of campus crisis: a critical incident, a campus emergency, and a disaster.  A critical incident impacts only a small portion of a campus, such as a residence hall complex, fraternity house, or sports team (Zdziarski et al., 2007). While a critical incident impacts community members, it may not involve shutting down an entire campus.  This does not mean that institutions should not take these situations seriously. Even if a critical incident impacts a small portion of the campus, a coordinated response addressing the incident should be implemented. Because students are impacted by critical incidents, colleges should expect to hear from family members during and after these incidents.  

Campus emergencies and disasters are more widespread than critical incidents. A campus emergency is an event that has the potential to impact the entire operation of the college or university. The full campus feels the impact of the incident, and typically the campus closes down for a period of time (Zdziarski et al., 2007).  Examples of emergencies may be a loss of power, a large scale student riot, or a natural disaster such as a flood, blizzard, or tornado. Because these incidents impact the entire campus community it is likely that parents and family members will contact campus for information and institutions need to be prepared to address their issues and concerns.  

A disaster impacts both the campus community and the communities surrounding the campus (Zdziarski et al., 2007).  For example, a blizzard in the area has the capacity to shut down both the college and the surrounding community for a period of time.  This was the case during Superstorm Sandy, which knocked out power to campuses and neighborhoods all along the Mid-Atlantic. When disasters occur family members may be unable to come to campus to bring students home and communication to campus may be limited due to loss of power.  Parents and family members will need to rely on campus and community partners to ensure the safety of their loved ones and will expect campuses to communicate with them regarding what is being done to get the campus up and running again.   

Families Changing Expectations for Communication

The expectations surrounding institutional communication with the parents and families of college students have changed with the cultural shift in the family/student relationship.  Families are talking to their students as often as 1.5 times per day (Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007 as cited in Wartman & Savage, 2008) and they are using new technologies such as texting and social media (Wartman & Savage, 2008) to communicate with their students.  Parents and families are also much more engaged with colleges and universities, usually at the request of their children, who rely on parental advice for navigating college (Pizzoloto & Hicklen, 2011). Senior student affairs officers report that parent and family involvement has been increasing over the last five to ten years.  Families are more involved in students’ lives and are often the ones who call colleges to raise issues on behalf of their children (Merriman, 2007). One of the top concerns family members mention, following academic success, is the safety of their student (Carney-Hall, 2008; Merriman, 2008). 

According to Merriman (2008), “parents today are not only involved in their students’ lives; they also have a heightened level of concern for their student.” (p. 57).  These worries are amplified when a permanent home is far away from campus; family members who live a great distance from campus are unable to exercise the same type of support and control they may have provided when their children were living at home.  Engagement with campus provides family members with a coping mechanism to feel more secure and the perception that they can protect their children from a distance (Merriman, 2008). This heightened sense of concern translates into a need for communication from institutions around campus safety, especially during a crisis.  This need is amplified every time a family learns about crisis incidents, which occur on campuses around the country; seeing news of a campus crisis causes families to wonder if their student is in a safe environment, especially in the wake of mass shootings, natural disasters and even the heightened awareness of issues such as sexual assault.  Because families and higher education institutions both care about students’ safety, this seems like a natural area of partnership for the well-being of students.

Communication with targeted audiences such as family members of students during a crisis is essential.  In fact, the “communications function can make or break an institution, particularly in a time of crisis . . . if target audiences think there is no response to a particular crisis, then perceptually, there is no response” (Lawson, 2007, p. 97).  It is essential that colleges and universities create crisis communication plans that include ways to communicate with family members of students.  This plan then needs to be shared widely with families so that they know institutions are well prepared to address a variety of crisis situations. Families are also concerned about the ways in which their students will be educated on emergency plans ranging from active shooters to natural disasters.  In the summer of 2016, following several campus shootings in spring 2016, one of the most common safety questions asked during the family orientation sessions at the University of Arizona was, “What is the campus plan for an active shooter, and how will you educate my student on this plan?” Clearly, families expect institutions to be prepared and to educate both families and students.  

The Impact of Technology on Crisis Communication

One of the challenges in managing crisis situations on campus is institutional staff’s ability to control the flow of information and to convey messages which are accurate.  Media sources are increasingly encouraging those involved in, or who observe a crisis situation to share information, videos, and pictures that are then used despite being an unofficial source by mainstream media in reporting on crisis situations.  Information supplied by an unofficial source is referred to as citizen generated content (Wigley & Fontenot, 2010). In today’s world of instant communication, families will use every technological tool available to them in order to gain information about a situation at their student’s institution, regardless of the accuracy of the source of this information (Merriman, 2008).  They will believe what they read, even without that information ever being substantiated. Nelson (2014) summarized the major challenge of crisis communication is that “In times of crisis, information is both the destination and the roadblock” (p. 78). If colleges and universities do not provide timely and accurate information to parents and families, they will look for information elsewhere.  There is a likelihood the information they find will not be accurate and can impact their perceptions of the college or university.  

Students are often equally as guilty of turning to social media sources and sharing information which may or may not be accurate.  This serves to heighten concerns about safety. One such example occurred this past spring when gunshots were heard in a neighborhood near campus at a large public institution where many students were housed in private homes.  The campus police did not issue a warning regarding the situation in the form of an emergency text message because students were not involved in the shooting, and the campus community was not in danger. This situation was not deemed to be a critical incident or a campus emergency.  However, because members of the Greek community could hear the shots from their houses, they turned to social media with speculation of an active shooter on campus. The university police and the dean of student’s office received several calls regarding the reports on social media. Several similar situations have led campus officials to change the policy about sending emergency text messages for emergencies close to campus even if students are not directly involved.   

This situation is an excellent example of how quickly panic regarding campus safety can escalate due to misinformation and the absence of an institutional message.  Thus, “campus administrators need to be aware of incidents or tragedies that happen in their campus neighborhood, regardless of whether the campus is affected or not” (Merriman, 2008, p. 58).  Both traditional sources of media and social media reporting on these incidents may lead families to believe that that the safety of students is in jeopardy if the institution is not assuring them otherwise.  

This form of instant communication and the use of citizen-generated content can cause confusion in the messaging for students, families, and the university community.  It can also contribute to a message quickly spinning out of control, thus increasing pressure on crisis managers to release information before they have verified factual information and details of the crisis.  Access to instant information twenty-four hours a day can also create unrealistic expectations of responses to concerned families from institutions (Merriman, 2008). It is essential that university staff work with families to educate them on how they would receive information from the institution during a campus crisis.  

Building a Culture of Communication with Families

Outreach and communication is an essential practice of parent and family programs offices (Page & Riester, 2015; Wartman & Savage, 2008).  Parent and family programs staff have multiple options in sharing information and resources with families of students. A recent survey of parent and family programs staff illustrated that 99% of programs utilized a website to share information, 95.6% of programs produced a digital newsletter, and 74.3% of programs were utilizing Facebook to communicate with families (Savage & Petree, 2013).  There has also been an increase in families of students using social media technology beyond Facebook. Other sources of social media used by parents and families to gather information on their student’s campus experience include: Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. The families using these types of social media will often follow multiple social media outlets for various departments within an institution.  Given today’s technology, any forms of digital communication such as emergency texting, emergency messages, websites, and emails should be developed in multiple formats for computers, smartphones, and tablets to ensure various forms of access to information (Page & Riester, 2015).  

Development of the culture of communication should begin as early as new student/family orientation programs.  During this time, families can be encouraged to sign up for any forms of emergency communication being offered by the institution.  They can also be educated on institutional resources for campus emergencies including website locations for emergency plans. It is also important to share this same information with families who are unable to attend orientation programs so that all families are educated on information resources.  The sooner parents have that information, the more prepared they may be if an actual incident happens on campus. Information may help family members feel more in control when an out of control incident happens on campus. More control could lessen the anxiety family members may feel during an actual crisis event (Merriman, 2008). Once these forms of communication have been established as trusted sources, families will be more likely to turn to them for information during times of crisis.  

Setting Expectations with Family Members Regarding Communication

Communicating emergency plans to family members is important; as well as setting expectations with families with regards to what information can be shared and what information will need to remain private.   New student/family orientation is an excellent time for staff members to begin having conversations with family members about the scope of FERPA, which may prohibit certain information from being disclosed to them or the public, and that information pertaining to their student may not be able to be disclosed without a waiver (Page & Riester, 2015).   It is much easier to communicate this information before a crisis occurs than while you are in the middle of a crisis incident and responding to requests for information you cannot provide.  

It is also important to let family members know that during a campus crisis the institution’s main focus will be on responding to the crisis and those directly involved.  Staff members may not be able to connect with them directly in the manner they wish (Merriman, 2008). For example, family members wishing to speak directly with the Vice President for Student Affairs or the President of the University will most likely not be able to reach those individuals due to campus emergency response protocols.  Family members need to expect that emergency plan protocols will be followed and information will be provided in the manner shared with them in the crisis communications plan.  

Communication with Family Members During a Crisis

Good communication from the college during a crisis can effectively lessen the anxiety a family member may feel in being far away from their college student (Klockentager & Klockentager, 2006). It is important for colleges and universities to have a solid communications plan in place long before a crisis occurs on campus.  Any communication plan should include fast and reliable channels for communicating information so all constituents, including family members, can receive all the facts they need during the crisis (Lawson, 2007). As was mentioned previously, family members should have access to emergency communications plan and should have the same options as students to sign up for emergency text alerts.  Parents should also know where information from the institution will be shared and how to access that information.  

Getting accurate, timely information during a crisis is family member’s highest priority (Klockentager & Klockentager, 2006).  If the campus is not providing timely information, family members will find sources of information outside the normal communication channels.  Family members are a specific target group needing information and colleges and universities should work with communications teams to deliver targeted messages to family members that meet their unique needs for information. These messages should resonate with family members and provide them the support they need during the crisis (Lawson, 2007).  Colleges and universities should also take advantage of the digital resources already available for family members to help direct family members to official sources of information available. For example, some institutions have a specific website which replaces the main institutional website to provide information during a campus crisis. The institutional homepage could be used to redirect families to the Parent and Family Facebook page or Twitter account for updates. 

Parent and Family social media accounts can reach the family audience at a quicker pace than other types of communication, and thus should share information posted on official college or university sites.  Colleges and universities should be aware that social media sites must be constantly monitored during crisis situations, as parent and family members may use those sites to ask questions or leave comments that need addressing.  During a recent incident at a Mid-Atlantic University in which power went out on a large part of campus and students needed to be temporarily relocated to recreation centers for safety reasons, family members used Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to ask questions and leave comments about the incident.  Without someone monitoring those sites, campus administrators would be unaware of the questions and concerns their constituents had.  

While digital communication is the quickest way to disseminate information, it does not reach every audience.  Some parents and family members may not use digital technology as a means to communicate. Those family members may call to seek information via telephone so colleges and universities need to be prepared to answer those calls.   Lawson (2007) recommends that a hotline be manned that provides information and support to constituents needing that assistance. Protocols for using analog phones should also be put in place. During crisis situations, cell phone access may be limited or digital phone systems may not be operating; analog phones may be the best way to speak to others during a disaster or other emergency situation.  

When a campus crisis or disaster occurs, it can disrupt the normal operations of the university and may impact the safety of our students.  As a result, family members may come to campus. Klockentager and Klockentager (2006) recommend that colleges and universities have a specific location for family members to gather when a high level crisis or disaster occurs, and that there are point persons available to meet with family members to try to answer questions, provide support, and gather feedback.

Continuing Communication After the Crisis Situation

A crisis does not end just because the situation is less critical.  Colleges and universities often have weeks and months of addressing the aftermath of a crisis situation on campus when a campus emergency or disaster occurs.  Administrators should assume family members will want answers after the incident has deescalated. Families will want to be kept up to speed on what the institution is doing to rebuild or heal from the crisis.  In addition, family members will want answers regarding what the college or university is doing to ensure that the crisis situation does not happen again. If the crisis situation included loss of life or serious injury, family members will want to be a part of memorials or services for loved ones lost.  

While information needs to be provided to family members after the event is over, it is even more important to listen to what family members have to say about the college or university’s response to the incident.  It is just as important to have the trust of family members as it is to have the trust of the students. Listening to feedback and suggestions for how things could have been done differently may lead to some good changes to the communication plan.  In addition, it may help family members feel as if their concerns have been heard and addressed appropriately.  

Reflection Questions

  1. What is your institutions stance/viewpoint on communicating with family members? Does this change during an emergency situation?
  2. How do you communicate proactively rather than reactively with families?
  3. What are the expectations that you want to set regarding communicating with families?  What communications are reasonable?  
  4. What are the messages you want to communicate to families, what platforms should be used to communicate these messages?   

Author Bios

Kathy Adams Riester is the Associate Dean of Students and Director of Parent and Family Programs at the University of Arizona. She is a member of the UA Campus Emergency Response Team, oversees Fraternity and Sorority Programs, and events involving expressive speech.   Kathy was the first chairperson ACPA’s Commission for Campus Safety and Emergency Preparedness (CCSEP).  

Anne Newman is the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.  Anne chairs the Threat Assessment and Safety Committee and is a member of the Division of Student Affairs critical incident response team.  Anne oversees the Office of Student Conduct, Student Affairs Compliance and Title IX, Student Legal Services, and Graduate Student Life and serves as an adjunct faculty member in the College Student Affairs program.  


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