Keeping Off Thin Ice

Campus communicators play a key role in risk management

Because public relations officers are adept at issues management and crisis communications, more campuses are including communicators in the assessment and prevention aspects of the risk-management process. Their most significant contributions include raising hard questions; forging good relations between the campus and the media and community; and tracking litigation patterns. This article, which also discusses potential future issues that will challenge campuses, is of interest to media and community relations officers, PR managers, and chief advancement officers.

By Andrea Jarrell

Utter the words "risk management," and most campus officials — communications officers included — will think of insurance. Not Julie Peterson. Although her title is associate vice president for media relations and public affairs, her job is full-time risk management for the communications office at the University of Michigan.

"I think colleges and universities are only recently coming to a better understanding of risk management in a broader context," Peterson says. "The University of Michigan recognized three years ago that many of the everyday crises, not to mention the really big flare-ups, had the entire communications staff running around like crazy, which meant we didn't have time to spend on the things Stephen Covey would call 'important but not urgent.'"

Michigan is not alone in this situation. Most communications offices operate in reactive mode, Peterson says. "I think that's partly a function of PR officers coming from journalistic backgrounds. That's how we are used to covering the news: A story breaks out, and we chase it until a new story breaks." So how do communications professionals move from reactive to proactive — and help their institutions do so as well?

Michigan administrators created Peterson's position to spot looming problems, forge ongoing relationships with key campus officials and other constituents, and marshal internal resources to make sure the university is ready long before a disaster hits. Her work frees up her colleagues to focus their attention on furthering the university's mission. The essence of risk management, after all, is managing any uncertainty about a future event that threatens an institution's ability to accomplish its mission.

What's at Risk

According to "Risk Management Basics," an online resource produced by the Nonprofit Risk Management Center, at-risk institutional assets generally fall into the following categories:

People — students, faculty, staff, board members, volunteers, clients, donors, and the general public;

Property — buildings, facilities, equipment, materials, copyrights, and trademarks;

Income — sales, tuition, fees, grants, and gifts; and

Goodwill — reputation, stature in the community, and the ability to raise funds and appeal to prospective students, faculty, staff, and volunteers.

A review of the nearly 11,000 liability claims made against education institutions in the past 15 years shows the recurring issues that most often jeopardize institutional assets are student injuries and deaths, faculty and administrators' employment discrimination claims, and student claims about the accreditation or closure of academic programs, says Ann H. Franke, vice president for education and risk management at United Educators Insurance, a for-profit insurance company owned and governed by more than 1,100 education institutions. To this list of the most common risk management issues, Elizabeth Carmichael, director of risk management at Mount Holyoke College, adds regulatory compliance, specifically institutions' noncompliance with Occupational Health and Safety Administration and Environmental Protection Agency provisions. She cites recent intensified EPA activity at Northeastern institutions in particular. "From a monetary liability standpoint, regulatory compliance is a huge issue for institutions," she says.

The Role of Communicators

"Risk Management Basics" describes risk management as boiling down to answering three basic questions: What can go wrong? What will the institution do both to prevent the harm from occurring and in the aftermath of an incident? And if something happens, how will the institution pay for it?

The third question looms largest on most campuses, which helps explain why financial officers often have chief responsibility for risk management. Titles vary, but larger institutions generally hire risk managers or insurance strategists, while chief financial officers or in-house counsels often assess and manage risks at smaller institutions.

Although it's rare for communicators to have a formal role in risk management, public relations pros — who frequently must answer the "what to do in the aftermath" question — have long been playing an important part in the process. Increasingly, savvy institution administrators have made it a practice to also include communicators in the assessment and prevention aspects of risk management, given communications professionals' "issues radar" and their "omnivorous" appetite — as one director puts it — for information about all levels of the institution.

"Communicators are sometimes in the best position to have both a comprehensive perspective on a situation as well as the campuswide relationships to bring all concerned parties together," says Kevin McCaffrey, associate director of communications at Mount Holyoke.

Aligning Policy and Practice

Most institution problems — legal, financial, or reputational — arise when campus actions don't align with campus values. "The touchstone of risk management is knowing campus policies and practices," Franke says. "We see institutions face serious problems that they could have prevented if someone had merely read and followed the policy before taking action." Franke believes that communications officers should be both well-versed in institutional policies and prepared to help encourage the understanding of those policies throughout the organization to reduce the possibility of disputes.

Dan Jorgensen, director of public relations and communication at Augsburg College, agrees. "We need to be aware of where problems might arise. From equal employment opportunity guidelines to student-to-student harassment issues to suicide attempts and accidental deaths, have we tested and proven our policies?" he asks. "It is vital that we have a regular, ongoing relationship with both the college's president and the chief operating officer to discuss these policies." He also suggests that communications pros get into the habit of asking crucial questions from time to time: "Do the right officers of the institution have the authority to take action on a moment's notice? How are we, as senior communicators, ready to deal with an incident and help our campus community through the event?"

Michigan's Peterson says some of a communications officer's most important duties include spotting trends, initiating questions, articulating answers, and bringing together various individuals on campus who have important information and expertise. She says the first question communicators should ask when they spot the beginnings of a trend is, are we doing the right thing? To arrive at an answer, they need to think through several additional questions: Where are we vulnerable? If we were the subject of public scrutiny on this topic, how would we appear? Do we need to revise some policies or take internal actions in anticipation of such scrutiny? Do the campus CEO, trustees, and senior leaders understand and support our position? Can we adequately explain it? Have we gathered relevant data and history? And, have we identified and briefed our spokespeople?

She admits, however, that asking — and getting answers to — these questions is the most difficult part of the risk management process. "I've seen many senior communicators run into political problems because their questions make people uncomfortable or seem critical," she says. Reassuring campus colleagues that you're on their side — and that what you are doing, although painful, will prevent bigger problems down the road — can help, she says. But communicators often have to prove themselves in a few key situations before they can build trust and respect, she adds. "The campus community must always trust that you will keep their confidences so they can feel comfortable being honest with you."

Ties That Bind

Astute communicators agree that their essential contribution to risk management is forging relationships on campus, among the media, and in the community. "While I am not involved in the day-to-day analysis of risk on the human resources, environmental, or facilities fronts," Mount Holyoke's McCaffrey says, "I have worked very hard to build relationships throughout the administration, staff, and faculty so people are inclined to contact me when they see a situation that might compromise the college's reputation." His colleague Elizabeth Carmichael agrees that while there are few formal connections between Mount Holyoke's risk management and communications offices, "the bonds are there." Both cite a recent incident in which campus builders uncovered 100-year-old fuel tanks that had been buried and forgotten — a potential environmental safety hazard — and another situation in which the dean of religious life proposed a college-sponsored peace march to Boston, raising concerns about the safety of participants and the implications for the institution. In both instances, communications officers were involved and thoroughly briefed at the start so they could strategize potential outcomes — good, bad, and neutral — and speak with authority.

Carmichael recommends that communicators make a point of talking with administrative department heads and deans on a regular basis. "Talking to those individuals to find out what they do and what they think is a good way to get a bird's-eye view of the entire organization," she says. McCaffrey adds that these talks often can occur as "you are developing stories to promote the college. Use those opportunities to strengthen working relationships with people as well as to begin conversations about the other issues or projects with which they may be dealing. With a working knowledge of what's on people's plates, you can begin to see where issues have the potential to become problematic.

With its "Campus Watch" group, the University of Michigan takes a more formal route to establishing relationships between its communications office and what Peterson calls the major campus hot spots: the hospital, athletics, public safety, campus computing, housing, student affairs, academic affairs, and environmental safety. Peterson is chair of the group, which includes senior leaders from each of these areas and meets monthly.

"I think the group has two important purposes," Peterson says. "The first is to share information that collectively can help pinpoint trends. The second and perhaps more important function is to develop relationships that will be crucial if an issue does become a major problem."

Good risk management practices require what United Educators' Franke calls a "holistic view." Such an approach begins with creating a broadly inclusive committee of risk management and communications staffers as well as deans of students and faculty; directors of finance, human resources, public safety, health services, environmental health and safety, information technology, and food services; and representatives from campus departments with special risks such as chemistry, engineering, physics, theater, fine arts, athletics, and study abroad.

In the November 2001 issue of its monthly newsletter, Safety Dispatch, United Educators recommends that committee membership should change over time not only to gain fresh and diverse points of view, but also to "develop risk management expertise in a broader group of people... strengthening networks across departments." Mount Holyoke's Carmichael says such groups also can serve as emergency response teams in crisis-planning and drill mode, responding to events as well as "meeting regularly to keep an ear to the ground in order to anticipate future trends and as-yet-unseen trouble spots."

Reading the Signs

In addition to keeping an eye on campus activities, communicators should make a practice of tracking internal and external patterns of litigation and crises. "Recognizing where problems have occurred in the past is not a guaranteed predictor of what could go wrong in the future, but it is the best place to start," Franke says. She recommends examining the patterns of student injuries, discrimination or reverse discrimination claims, sexual harassment allegations, tenure disputes, and patent and technology claims, to name a few. If, for example, your institution has had a number of tenure litigations, you must understand not only what went on in those situations, but also what safeguards officials have put in place to prevent future problems. "Was it sheer bad luck?" Mount Holyoke's Carmichael says she would ask. "Or was there a definite lack of alignment with what the institution says it values and what its practices are?"

Horizon Issues

While looking to the past may be a fair indicator of future issues, an absence of problems is by no means an excuse for campus communicators to stick their heads in the sand. "I think sometimes we see warning signs or read early news stories that signal a major institutional issue, and we say, 'Thank God that wasn't us,' or 'it can't happen here,'" Peterson says. "But it can, and it does. We can usually see these things coming at us if only we'd look. That's small comfort if you happen to be the first. But for the rest of us, all the information we need to anticipate major crises is out there. 

She cites warning signs a few years ago that the U.S. government was starting to toughen regulations on the use of human subjects in research. "If you weren't talking with your research compliance officers and missed the subtle signs, there were the huge news stories about the shutdown of the Duke Medical Center and the death of a subject in a gene therapy protocol at the University of Pennsylvania," she says. "These led to an avalanche of investigations and punitive actions." She points to a second canary in the coal mine in the move toward divestment from Israel on some campuses due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Our own students could have told us two years ago that this issue was building steam. The trickle of news stories has now become a flood."

When asked to name risks institutions face today that they did not face 10 years ago, one might put terrorism at the top of the list. In a May/June 2002 article for Trusteeship, the bimonthly magazine of the Association of Governing Boards, United Educators' Franke writes that what has intensified "is our perception of the existing risk.… We are more ready to devote resources to anticipating and preventing injury and liability."

The issue that does top Franke's list of troublesome trends is the dramatic change in the landscape of employment liability. "More cases now go to juries," she says. "Institutions find it more challenging to defend their employment decisions before juries than judges." She adds that retaliation claims are much more common than they were 10 years ago and are proving quite challenging for institutions to defend. "We have seen more than a few cases in which the jury finds for the university on the underlying discrimination claim, but against the university on the retaliation claim."

Augsburg's Jorgensen cites computer issues as an emerging concern, from the fallout from potentially offensive e-mails within a campus community (see "All Along the Watchtower" in the February 2003 issue of CURRENTS for more on this topic) to the security of institution-owned data (see "Fear Factor") to a growing number of copyright violation claims arising when students and faculty members post disputed information on a campus Web site.

Mount Holyoke's Carmichael points to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as an area of new liability. HIPAA protects the privacy of employees who move from company to company so as not to hinder their ability to obtain health insurance. But the impact on education institutions is not perfectly clear. One Texas campus, for example, took the position that its physicians or trainers could no longer give an injured athlete's diagnosis to his or her coach. "As lawyers and Congress continue modifying HIPAA, what a campus spokesperson is able to say one day about a star athlete may change the next day. It's quite a little land mine," Carmichael says.

Michigan's Peterson says her list of continuing or impending issues "goes on and on." Her top picks include conflict of interest, both in the context of research and in new arenas such as university purchasing; labor issues such as the push for living wages among institution staff and unionization drives by faculty lecturers and graduate student instructors; and political rifts within the student body stemming from continuing worldwide events including terrorism, the prospect of war with Iraq, and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. "International students will continue to feel vulnerable and may be subjected to incidents of hate and intolerance," Peterson says. "Visa issues and the implementation of the Students and Exchange Visitor Information System will keep us busy." Related to terrorism, Peterson adds concerns about laboratory safety, the sharing of sensitive research findings, and larger questions of academic freedom.

In addition, she cautions that admissions will be a continuing hot spot as the higher education community awaits a Supreme Court decision on affirmative action and as demographic trends continue to drive up the number of applications at most institutions. She also cites newer issues surrounding parents' expectations of the institution to take greater care of its students. In particular, she notes the focus these expectations have put on university mental health services.

"If you haven't thought about these issues before," Mount Holyoke's Carmichael says, "the idea of risk management can be very scary." But as United Educators' Franke reassures, "all institutions are somewhere on a continuum of awareness, planning, and prevention. It is simply a matter of how much energy you want to put into addressing and securing the issues that threaten to impede your mission." 

Michigan's Peterson agrees. "I'm not always prepared, and sometimes I'm too busy to pay enough attention to some warning signs," she says. But with an eye on the horizon, "it turns out the real surprises are few and far between." 

This article is from the March 2003 issue.