By Dan Oltersdorf, Chief Learning Officer
When the phone of a student housing professional rings at 2 a.m., it is never good news, and it is almost never simple nor predictable. Over my 22 years in student housing, I have no shortage of stories and I know more are around the corner. Our residents are experiencing life on every level at our communities, the good and the bad. No matter how well-managed a student housing property is, the unexpected happens — just take all of 2020 as one example.
Over the years, I have been involved in nearly every category of property crisis situations, from deaths to natural disasters. One of the first significant crises I faced was 9/11. As an on-campus Hall Director, I was challenged with how to provide leadership and support to 800 residents in the midst of an international crisis. Another notable event was the horrific shooting at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. Before and after these tragic events, I have seen everything from a plane crash into a property to hostage situations to homicides, suicides, fires, floods, crimes, a global pandemic, and just about anything else you can imagine. That said, I have learned the moment I think I have seen it all, I will be proven wrong.
Given this stark reality, how can and should student housing managers prepare for and address crises? Here are 5 top tips:
While a procedural and tactical approach is necessary, never lose sight of this: the single most important element is human life. The physical well-being of staff members, residents and others affected must always reign supreme. It can be easy to gloss over this, but the moment this is skipped and the first thought is about your response to the situation, public relations or other secondary factors, you have lost the most important element. It’s about people.
While you can never anticipate every possible incident, having a structure and plan in place is fundamental to successfully handling a crisis. At Campus Advantage, a number of elements assist us in being prepared for crises. This includes our CARE (Campus Advantage Rapid Engagement) program which is a core team of the CEO, Vice Presidents of Operations, public relations, marketing, and leasing teams. This team provides a coordinated, comprehensive and organized response to emergency situations that may occur on properties. Our home office and all properties also have an emergency response and preparedness binder, which includes on-hand crisis communications guidance that allows team members to quickly implement and respond to various scenarios.
Ensure every member of your team understands what to do in case of a crisis. We require our team members to go through crisis communications training so team members can manage a potential crisis effectively and know how to properly engage public relations as well as handle any media inquiries.
In a crisis situation, people have the right to be as informed as possible. You cannot have too much communication with the people attached to the situation: primarily, your residents. Use a cross-channel approach to make sure residents (and their parents) are in the know and feel taken care of, utilizing letters, social media, email, and more.
5. Assess, improve, and prepare
This is not a one-time process. Preparing for, and addressing, a crisis doesn’t end after the crisis has surpassed. It is important to continue to provide your residents and the media (if applicable) updates on the situation and on-site enhancements that are being implemented to continue to assure them that their safety and well-being is your utmost priority. You should also continue to monitor social media, online reviews, etc. and address those before they become your next crisis. Additionally, it’s important to take a look back at the situation itself and think through what worked and what didn’t to uncover ways to improve upon your designated steps, processes, and messaging so that you are prepared when the next crisis scenario pops up.
At the end of the day, these steps are important, but they mean nothing if you are not striving to address the first point: put people first. Strive to do right by your residents. Ultimately, this is what will yield results.
Do you have a plan for when property crises occur? If you’re thinking about bringing on a new student housing management company with thorough crisis experience, contact us to learn more about Campus Advantage’s management approach.