SM& President and crisis communications expert Ashley McCown presented to a wide range of higher education officials at “Campus in Crisis: Navigating Title IX Communications,” a breakout session at the 2015 Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts (AICUM) Fall Symposium, held Thursday at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.

The number of departments represented among the attendees (student affairs, human resources, campus security, general counsel, media relations, risk management and more) underscores how now, more than ever, institutions of higher education are being held accountable for how they aim to prevent sexual assaults, support survivors and adjudicate complaints. This is especially true for schools where survivors have filed complaints under Title IX (and the more than 100 schools the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is now investigating) because they feel their school failed to respond effectively to their complaints.

Throughout the session, Ashley stressed the importance of a well-thought-out strategy around how to speak with key audiences such as students, faculty, families, donors, alumni and the media. She spoke to the importance of a school being proactive and communicating in a manner that is accountable, empathetic and transparent.

Ashley articulated the risks of being unprepared, such as reputation damage and lawsuits, as well as the realities of communicating in the court of public opinion as opposed to a court of law. That is precisely why having outside communications and legal counsel is invaluable in a time of crisis, to assist campus administrators navigate this constantly-evolving and often high-stakes environment.