Friday Five: 5 questions with Chris Syme, author of ‘Listen, Engage, Respond’

Chris Syme is a strategic communications consultant based in Bozeman, Montana, and the author of a new e-book about crisis communications called Listen, Engage, Respond: Crisis Communications in Real Time. This concise e-book is a terrific primer for anyone involved in crisis communications at any level. Chris describes it as “a self-help book written for anyone.”

Chris’s blog,, is a must-read for anyone in higher ed interested in  issues management, reputation management and crisis communications. Recently, I asked Chris five questions about her new book. Here are her responses.

Chris Syme,

1. What prompted you to write Listen, Engage, Respond?

Chris Syme: Most of the crisis strategies I see are weak in some areas. Everyone has a strength — some deal with planning, some are about in-crisis response, and even some know how to incorporate the basics of social media into a communications strategy. But, a couple concerns really stood out.

First, nobody seemed to be stressing the importance of listening for a crisis, and there is a real lack of practical advice out there — here’s-how-you-do-it kind of stuff. Second, the whole idea of developing social media engagement strategies designed to build loyalty and bolster reputation in order to help avert a crisis was missing. We’ve been busy learning how to use social media to sell stuff, do customer service, get reach, find donors, etc., but not much about how to develop loyalty. The value of loyalty is hard to measure, but those of us in crisis and reputation management know it’s a valuable shield come crisis time.

Crisis managers are writing about how to put a plan together and how to act once you have a crisis, but nobody is talking about how to prevent one with social media strategies. I think that organizations, especially higher education, were crying out for help.

After I did the two surveys over the winter on crisis preparedness — one for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the other for the College Sports Information Directors (CoSIDA) — I realized we were all woefully unprepared for what many were experiencing. Crisis prevention is tough to sell, and when it happens, people want to outsource or hide. The book was designed to be kind of a hands-on manual for success.

2. From your perspective, where do you think most colleges and universities fall short in their crisis communications efforts?

Chris Syme: The surveys we did last winter showed that the biggest gap was in monitoring. Most schools fail to monitor the accounts that represent the school. As a matter of fact, most respondents didn’t even know how many accounts were representing the school. Lack of organization was widespread. And very few offer training and help for those in the social media space representing the institution. The surveys produced five action points that are critical for schools to address now:

  • Implement a social media monitoring system to be used to track brand mentions and to function as triage in the event of a crisis
  • Implement a social media management system/dashboard from which all social media accounts can be managed
  • Establish registration or affiliation for accounts that represent the institution
  • Develop a social media policy or guidelines and provide training
  • Establish a community manager; a hub to the institution’s spokes

3. On a macro level, what do you see as the top two or three looming issues for higher education that we must be prepared to manage?

Chris Syme: Number one is certainly the issue of privacy. This hits every corner of campus — from requiring student-athletes to “friend” coaches on Facebook, prohibiting employees from using social media at work, firing faculty or staff for negative posts on social media, students stalking other students on social media, faculty developing inappropriate relationships with students online — boy the list goes on and on. We are going to see a lot of court cases over the next few years. Schools must make sure their policies are legal. Campus lawyers need to take a short course, or get some help in navigating social media issues. And, we need to educate our campuses (students and staff) on how to use social media appropriately.

Next, I think we need to address the brewing hysteria over public dissatisfaction expressed in social media. We need to keep our wits. I saw a piece the other day where someone had called a few band members yelling a racial slur at a basketball game a disaster. Really? A disaster? Unfortunate bad behavior, but not a disaster. The school had bent over backwards and kept the issue in the public eye so long it became an issue. I think social media triage needs to come to the forefront, and we need to learn the art of appropriate response.  We don’t need to expel a student or fire a faculty member every time somebody calls us out on Twitter. I think institutions are becoming afraid of the power of social media. The funny thing, that power works both ways. If we spent as much time building loyalty and cred in social media as we do looking for issues to apologize about, we wouldn’t need to worry about it. An invested loyal community in social media will police itself.

If I could give a third issue, I’d say the sheer amount of tools and innovations that we are bombarded with as marketers and communicators–every week a new app or tool. Find out what works. Don’t be in a hurry to jump on the bandwagon. Know how much time and resources you have. Have a strategic plan and implement only those strategies that further the goals. Everybody doesn’t need to be on Foursquare.

4. Related to Question 3, what are the best approaches for addressing those issues?

Chris Syme: Other than what I said above, take a deep breath and remember that social media is good and bad, ugly and beautiful. And you need it all for it to work. Crisis prevention can be accelerated in social media if done well. The same media channels we spend hours wringing our hands over can be the media that helps us sleep at night. To me, training and education are the key. Teach people how to harness the power of social media to build reputation and deepen loyalty. Then, you’ll have a corps of faithful advocates in a crisis.

When it comes to crisis, I just think we need to understand that those same engagement strategies we use for admissions and alumni can be used to build reputation. Think in terms of integrated strategies.

5. Finally, what is the key point that you would like every reader to take from your book?

Chris Syme: It’s a self-help book written for everyone.  It doesn’t matter if you’re K-12, higher ed, big, small — the book was designed to teach you how to build an effective crisis communication strategy. I didn’t write the book so people would call me, I wrote the book so they wouldn’t have to. It’s a process-oriented book loaded with resources to help everyone “be their own media.” That’s the tagline of my agency. I think we succeeded.


Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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