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14.11.2018

Study by the TU Ilmenau: German universities frequently affected by crises

According to a study by Technische Universität Ilmenau, German universities are often affected by crises, but are little prepared for crisis communication, i.e. how they should react communicatively in the event of a crisis. According to the online survey conducted by the Group for Research in Public Relations and Communication of Technology, the majority of universities and universities of applied sciences stated that they had already experienced at least one serious crisis at their university, but preparation for communication in an emergency still plays a subordinate role at most universities.

Plagiarism scandals, refinancing crises or flood catastrophes have repeatedly shown in recent years that German universities have to reckon with serious crises that also endanger their reputation and credibility in the public eye. The tragic killing sprees at US universities have also shown which dangers are to be expected in the worst case. In order to protect people and the reputation of universities, professional crisis communication plays a decisive role in such situations. A recently published study by the Group for Research in Public Relations and Communication of Technology at TU Ilmenau has therefore investigated how senior communications managers at German universities assess the risk of crises and how well they believe they are prepared for communication in an emergency.

Well over three quarters, 79 percent, of those responsible for communications said that they had already experienced a serious crisis at their university. Most of the cases involved critical media coverage and misconduct on the part of employees or students. Violent acts, allegations of plagiarism and health risks were mentioned by a quarter of the respondents. Environmental and natural disasters, declining student numbers and financial problems were cited by 10 to 15 percent of those responsible for communications.

Although crises are apparently part of everyday life at German universities, preparing for crisis communication in an emergency still plays a subordinate role. Important instruments for preparation such as crisis training, media training or guidelines for dealing with social media in crises are mostly implemented little or not at all. The use of contingency plans and crisis teams is somewhat more common. According to the study, universities with rather flat hierarchies and participative structures in the cooperation between university management, committees and employees also do more to prevent crises or prepare for crisis communication. This also applies to universities where crisis communication is clearly the responsibility of the public relations department or the spokesperson, rather than the responsibility of faculties or departments. The authors of the study, Dr. Andreas Schwarz, Head of the Group for Research in Public Relations and Communication of Technology, and Johanna Büker of the PR agency Dako PR, see a need to catch up: “In the future, we urgently need more research on the practice of crisis communication at German universities in order to further professionalize it [Künftig benötigen wir dringend mehr Forschung zur Praxis der Krisenkommunikation an deutschen Hochschulen, um diese weiter zu professionalisieren]”.

The online survey was conducted in February 2017 and was aimed at the senior communications officers at universities in Germany. 67 of the 399 German universities took part in the survey. The results were published in September 2018 in the anthology "Forschungsfeld Hochschulkommunikation" by Birte Fähnrich, Julia Metag, Senja Post, and Mike S. Schäfer (editors) at Springer VS-Verlag: link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-658-22409-7