1.1 Purpose

Duke University’s Crisis Communications Plan outlines the roles, responsibilities and protocols that will guide the university in promptly sharing information with all of Duke’s audiences during an emergency or crisis.

This plan is a part of the Duke University Emergency Management Plan, administered by the Emergency Coordinator.

For the purposes of this plan, a crisis is defined as a significant event that prompts significant, often sustained, news coverage and public scrutiny and has the potential to damage the institution’s reputation, image or financial stability. A crisis could be precipitated by an emergency or a controversy. An emergency is a fire, hurricane, crime or other event that presents a threat and typically involves a response from police, fire or emergency medical personnel. A controversy better describes events such as a major student protest or a case of employee misconduct.

1.2 Scope

The audiences for this plan include undergraduates, graduate and professional school current and prospective students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, trustees, neighbors, city leaders, media, our Durham community, national and international publics, and state and federal officials.

The plan is designed primarily for the university rather than the Duke University Health System, which has its own plan. However, it will be carried out in close coordination with the Health System to align messages and operations, promoting effective communications across the entire Duke community.


Our guiding principle will be to communicate facts as quickly as possible, updating information regularly as circumstances change, to ensure the safety of the Duke community and the continued operation of essential services. Our efforts to be simultaneously accurate and quick may mean that some communications are incomplete. We accept this, knowing that how we communicate in an emergency or a crisis will affect public perceptions of the university. Honesty and speed are the most effective means to avoid lasting damage to the institution and widespread second-guessing by the public, which expects immediate access to accurate information. A good offense is the best defense. At the same time, we realize that in a crisis, people will likely expect us to have more information than we may actually have. That makes it imperative to speak with accuracy about what we know and not to speculate about details we do not know.

We will use multiple mediums to reach as many people as possible with accurate, timely information. This is especially important in the first hours and days of an emergency or a crisis. Our goal is to be open, accountable and accessible to all audiences, while also being mindful of legal and privacy concerns.


3.1 Convening the Crisis Communications Team

The Crisis Communications Team will convene when the Emergency Coordinator (appointed by the president) declares a Level 1 Emergency (the most severe category that presents significant risk to the community or the university’s reputation and resources) or has requested to assess communication needs for Level 2 or Level 3 Emergencies.

Given the urgency of rapid communications, the Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations or his/her designee has the authority to begin taking action immediately, in consultation with the Emergency Coordinator or his/her designee, until a broader decision can be made about how the university should proceed. Also, the Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations may identify a potential crisis or controversy that is not an immediate emergency and assemble the Crisis Communications Team to prepare a communications strategy – again, as part of a coordinated university response.

In the event of an ongoing threat to safety or security, the Clery Act requires universities to make timely notifications to the campus community. Once an incident is determined to fall under the Clery Act, a notice will be promptly distributed to the Duke community. Such determinations will be made by the Assistant Vice President of Safety and Security or his/her designee in consultation with the General Counsel or his/her designee and the Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations or his/her designee. Duke’s goal is to send timely notice after being notified of an emergency situation.

Depending on the nature of the emergency or crisis, it may not be possible for the Emergency Leadership Team, the Emergency Coordinator or his/her designee to convene prior to the timely notification. Once the Emergency Leadership and Emergency Management Teams meet and have the opportunity to determine whether the university is facing an emergency, execution of this plan can be adjusted accordingly.

3.2 Crisis Communications Team Representatives

  • Vice President, Public Affairs and Government Relations – chair
  • Associate Vice President, News and Communications
  • Associate Vice President of News and Communications, Duke Medicine
  • Assistant Vice President, Communication Services
  • Others as needed

The vice president or his/her designee will add other team members, as appropriate under the circumstances. The vice president or his/her designee will contact each member by phone and/or email to convene immediately.

3.3 Location

The Crisis Communications Team headquarters for most crises will be the third-floor meeting room of the Office of News and Communications (ONC), 615 Chapel Dr. ONC also will maintain stocks of press packets, press identification badges, parking passes, and copies of this plan.

Since this room has limited conference capabilities, it may be replaced with another facility in the event of an extended crisis or emergency. The primary back-up location is the media room at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The team may move its headquarters to Cameron in a number of circumstances, including technical limitations at the news office or a need to be in close proximity to the news media if they are set up at the Wilson Recreation Center.


4.1 Implementation

The Crisis Communications Team will implement some, or all, of the steps outlined below based on circumstances, coordinating with the Emergency Leadership Team. Throughout a crisis, the team will meet frequently to review changing facts, assess whether key messages are reaching audiences and determine whether strategies need to change. The success of this plan rests on open and frequent communications among Duke’s Emergency Leadership Team, the Emergency Management Group and the Crisis Communications Team.

Contact information for leadership and communication officials is included in documents located on the emergency wiki suite:

  • Team Contact List (located under Important Documents);
  • Senior Administrators; Crisis Communications Team (both lists are under Supporting Documents on the wiki home page).

Also, the document Checklist for Crisis Communications on the wiki site includes phone, pager and mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses for key communications personnel tasked with providing initial response.

In an emergency, our goal is to issue our first communication to key university audiences within 30 minutes of notification of the event, with regular updates as needed. Some situations may require even faster initial communications.

4.2 Immediate Response

The team will carry out these initial tasks immediately:

  • Activate outdoor sirens/public address system for immediate threats (tornado, gunman, etc.).
  • Send DukeALERT e-mail and text message for any Clery incident or Level 1 Emergency.
  • Activate and post notification on DukeALERT website (emergency.duke.edu) for any Level 1 Emergency.
  • Initiate phone tree for Severe Weather/Emergency Conditions notification process for any Level 1 emergency.
  • Send management memo as appropriate.
  • Post message on Duke Today as appropriate.
  • Update Severe Weather/Emergency Conditions phone line (684-INFO) for any Level 1 emergency.
  • Create and distribute DukeALERT Bulletin (send to campus communicators, residence coordinator on call, campus service areas that do not have e-mail access) for any Clery incident or Level 1 emergency.
  • Send notification text to Campus Communicators for dissemination as appropriate.
  • Send media alert as appropriate.
  • Send messages and update content through the Duke News accounts on Twitter and/or Facebook, as appropriate.
  • Create incident-specific blogs to convey information directly to particular audiences.
  • Convene the Crisis Communications Team for any Level 1 emergency.
  • Convene other communicators for emergency call center or other needs.

4.3 Secondary Response

Once the Crisis Communication Team convenes, the following tasks will be carried out by this team:

  • Designate a secretary who can maintain meeting notes, to-do lists, information files on the ongoing crisis and other items.
  • Review and write down known facts – those that can and cannot be released to the public — and determine whether a response is needed, and if that response is needed for all of the university’s key audiences. These facts will be used to fill in templates for news releases, text messages and other items that have already been developed. A list of potential crises is included in this plan’s appendix, along with a list of audiences and who will be responsible for coordinating communications to each. It is critical as the situation changes for new fact sheets to be developed.WHY? These fact sheets can be used to update websites, emails, news releases and other communication channels. They will also help guide the team’s overall strategy as events unfold.
  • Develop several key messages that will be included in all university communications. One message typically will address what Duke is doing to ensure the safety of students and other community members. Another may need to be forward-looking and address what we are doing to make sure the crisis, or a problem with our response, doesn’t happen again. All of the messages should evolve as circumstances change but will always aim to restore and maintain confidence and calm, balancing a sense of concern with resolve and action. Sample messages are included in the approved templates.
  • Determine who will act as spokespeople – both a senior leader of the university and someone charged primarily with communications responsibilities. The senior leader will be the public face of the university, while the communicator will run briefings and handle media questions between such formal press gatherings.Designate one or more members of the Crisis Communications Team to communicate key messages and emerging facts to those spokespeople and handle any last-minute media training. It is critical that senior leaders, including deans and faculty leaders, have copies of the most recent news releases and other messages so everyone is clear on what is being shared with the public.WHY? In a time of emergency, it is critical for a high-ranking leader of the university – in most cases, the president – to be the university’s public face and take the lead in communicating key messages and answering questions. Such action illustrates that the situation is under control and that efforts are being made to address any questions that have arisen. It also serves to calm various audiences. As the situation evolves, the senior leader acting as the key spokesperson may change.
  • Assign responsibilities to the Crisis Communications Team to communicate the facts of the situation and our response to key audiences. Each member will use approved messages and templates for this effort. Whenever possible, the first groups that should be informed about a crisis are internal audiences directly affected, such as students, employees, faculty and trustees. The next groups typically would include parents, alumni, community leaders and other audiences, as well as the media.The channels used to communicate to each audience may differ, so each team member will be expected to develop detailed plans to reach his/her designated audience. A complete list of the people responsible for each audience, and suggested channels to reach them, is included in Appendix A. An abbreviated list is here:
    • Students (Vice president for student affairs or his/her designee, in collaboration with dean of undergraduate education or his/her designee)
    • Faculty and staff (Assistant vice president for communications services)
    • Senior leaders and trustees (Vice president for public affairs and government relations or university secretary, as appropriate)
    • Deans (Provost)
    • Parents (Vice president for student affairs or his/her designee)
    • Alumni (Executive director of alumni and development communications)
    • Durham community, neighbors and city leaders (Assistant vice president for community relations)
    • Local law enforcement (Director for Duke University Police Department or his/her designee)
    • Media (ONC director of media relations/Associate vice president for news and communications, Duke Medicine)
    • Federal leaders, agencies and contacts (Associate vice president for federal relations)
    • State leaders, agencies and contacts (Vice president for public affairs and government relations)
    • Visitors (Assistant vice president for communications services in collaboration with manager of internal communications for News & Communications)

    The Crisis Communications Team, depending on the circumstances, may identify other audiences and assign responsibility for them.

  • Update DukeALERT website. ONC will use a blog posted and regularly updated on the Emergency Website and DukeToday as primary sources of updates, linking from there to other pages with detailed information. ONC may also create special pages or sites about a situation, linking to these from DukeToday and www.duke.edu. Duke Medicine may post information on http://insidedukemedicine.org.ONC has developed a template for a crisis website, with limited navigation, message boards and other features, that can be used as needed. It also has developed a “lite” homepage. ONC may also contact people via its Twitter and Facebook accounts.Other possible online steps include removing Flash features, taking down images or seeking backup web support from colleagues at Stanford University to ensure that download speeds and web effectiveness remain acceptable even as traffic demands increase.

    The manager of internal communications, working with the ONC web projects manager and in consultation with the Office of Information Technology, will take responsibility for overseeing all of these changes and needed updates.

  • Assign communicators, as needed, to handle phone calls, using a script developed from the key messages and facts the Crisis Communications Team has developed. These staffers should reach out to other units that handle multiple calls during a crisis, including our general number, Student Affairs, admissions and the communicators list. These employees will also monitor and update the recorded message on university hotline(s), 919-684-INFO.As part of this effort, a separate log will be maintained to record all calls and interview requests from members of the media. These staffers will be responsible for ensuring that all calls are returned.WHY? Our policy is always to be as responsive as possible to news media. During a crisis, it is important to maintain an organized log of interview requests so that calls are returned promptly. It is a missed opportunity if members of the media don’t know our key messages and facts as we understand them.
  • Develop communications from the president, as appropriate. It may be necessary for the president to communicate to the Duke community about the emergency. The vice president for public affairs and government relations will be responsible for generating and reviewing presidential communications, including correspondence, e-mail messages, talking points, speeches or op-eds, in consultation with the appropriate members of the Crisis Team.
  • Open the media center, and determine whether a press conference(s) should be held. It is Duke’s normal practice to permit news reporters and photographers to have open access to the campus for the purpose of conducting interviews after they check in with the Office of News and Communications. However, during crisis situations the vice president for public affairs and government relations or his/her designee will determine if access needs to be restricted to ensure the safety of the campus and its residents, or to avoid disruption to essential services and programs. If that determination has been made, then news reporters and photographers will first be directed to a staging area between the Bryan Center and the Chapel. During a severe crisis or in severe weather, the media area may be moved to the Doris Duke Center or, if a larger space is needed, the Wilson Recreation Center. ONC may also use other rooms for press events, as needed.ONC’s director of media relations or the associate vice president for the Medical Center News Office will be responsible for opening this facility, bringing needed supplies from the Office of News & Communications (including identification badges, parking passes, media guidelines and press packets) and determining a schedule for 24-hour staffing. Two carrying cases located in Steve Hartsoe’s office at ONC (first floor) contain many supplies communicators will need if working away from their main office. These include Duke media badges, USB cables for printers, campus and Durham maps, tape, copier paper, pens, and notepads. The director of media relations/associate vice president will coordinate press conferences (including arranging needed equipment, such as microphones, mult box, etc.), and related media advisories, as needed.If the emergency requires the opening of a media center, the university must treat equipping this center – with such items as tables and chairs – as a high priority. Some emergencies may require that this media center remain open 24 hours a day for an indefinite period. Should that occur, the vice president for public affairs and government relations has the authority to use communicators from around the university for staffing. In such a situation, no single person can or should be expected to work around the clock. Rather, the vice president or his/her designee must tap and empower other senior-level communicators to assist with managing the facility and answering media requests.

    Wilson Recreation Center was chosen because of its technological infrastructure, its food and bathroom facilities, and proximate parking for news crews and satellite trucks. Members of the media will be able to set up on the basketball court and have access to the interview room for private interviews. A security officer should be assigned to prevent access to other parts of the building.

    According to OIT, Wilson Recreation center is fairly well covered for wireless service with the exception of the locker rooms and pool area. Card Gym has eight access points (AP) — wireless “base stations” with multiple antennae — in the basement for full coverage, plus an AP in the banquet room of Card Gym. There are two APs in plastic boxes on the outside wall of card gym facing Kville. There are another three APs evenly spaced in window locations of Wilson Rec facing K’ville. There is also an AP in the hall of Wilson Rec at the main office, across from the juice bar. Classrooms 017, 018, and 020 each have an AP and there is an AP on the desk in the weight room. One of the APs that face K’ville from Wilson Rec is located in the window of the basketball court, which covers the court area.

    As a backup media center, the Doris Duke Center is equipped with wireless capabilities, with three access points that allow 90 simultaneous connections (2 megs per connection). There are also seven access points in Duke Gardens. OIT says this should be sufficient since many reporters will use their own air cards that give them wireless access through their own cellular carriers. OIT says if cellular service is hindered by the crisis then Duke can within 2-3 hours install more wireless access points and/or request mobile cellular towers from Duke’s main cellular vendors. Access to the network is managed by the Help Desk. The login is always “dukeguest” and the password changes every Monday, which the Help Desk can send weekly to a communicator.

  • Assign an ONC staffer to monitor media and online coverage to anticipate any problems in the way information is flowing to the news media and on the Internet. ONC already has a system for daily monitoring of print coverage, broadcast media and blogs, and that system will be put to use for this effort. Summaries of relevant coverage will be provided to the university’s senior leadership and Crisis Communications Team on at least a daily basis, or more frequently as needed. Under “Supporting Documents.” the emergency wiki site now includes two helpful tip sheets: “Tracking International Media” and “Blog Monitoring Essentials.”WHY? It will be critical to be aware of how the university is being portrayed in early and ongoing coverage to adjust the communications response as needed to limit rumors, correct errors and maintain confidence in the university.
  • Determine how we should report on the situation for internal audiences. For instance, are there town meetings, protests or vigils? The manager of internal communications will be responsible for coordinating print, video and audio coverage, working with the Office of Communications Services, University Photography and ONC’s Radio-TV Services, of the events for internal publications and web posting.
  • Evaluate how to help our community recover, return to normal and, if needed, regain faith in the university after the trigger event of the crisis is over, in coordination with the senior leadership. This may include the need for town hall meetings, letters from the president expressing sympathy, detailed plans to prevent another such crisis, etc.
  • Within 10 days of the end of the event, assess how this plan functioned, address any needed updates and recognize the work of partners whose help was invaluable. (i.e., assistance from communicators from other units or universities)

4.4 Approvals of outgoing information

Typically, we use a collegial approach of multiple approvals before we distribute communications pieces, including emails and news releases. That system will not work in a crisis. Seconds matter in a crisis, and we will be judged by how quickly we share information with key audiences.

As a matter of policy, Duke is committed to trying to meet these expectations. It recognizes the need for unusually crisp decision-making during a crisis to enable rapid, accurate communication in coordination with the institution’s broader process. We have developed templates that have been approved in advance by senior officers and legal counsel to expedite the approval process during a crisis. Final approval for all communications – for the university and health system – rests with the vice president for public affairs and government relations, or his/her designee.

4.4 Staffing

When a Level 1 Emergency has been declared, employees of the Office of Public Affairs, Office of News & Communications, and Office of Communications Services will be relieved of their typical job responsibilities to help execute this plan.

It may also be necessary to have additional help. The vice president has the authority to enlist the help of communicators from across Duke and assign them as needed to the crisis response.

4.5 The End of the Crisis

The Emergency Coordinator will determine when an emergency has ended and routine communications processes can resume. The decision to declare the emergency over will trigger a review of how the crisis was handled and how communications can improve.


5.1 Education and Testing

The assistant vice president for communication services will take the lead in educating our community about how and when members would get messages from Duke in an emergency. The procedures may be similar to those used to educate the community about the university’s severe weather policy. The university will also conduct at least one test annually of the DukeALERT communication tools, which include the siren/public address system, email, text messaging, website, and phone line.

The university will conduct an annual drill of emergency management with participation by members of the Emergency Leadership Team. The crisis communications plan will be tested at these times with participation by members of the Crisis Communications Team.

As part of this process, the associate vice president for news and communications and assistant vice president for communication services will schedule media training sessions for senior administrators and key team members. After the initial session to train all key officials, sessions will be scheduled annually for people who are new to the Emergency Leadership Team, the Emergency Management Team or the Crisis Communications Team. Every two years, all members will attend a refresher course in media training.

Media training also will be necessary for certain officials who are neither part of the Emergency Leadership Team nor the Crisis Communications Team. For instance, the executive director of Counseling & Psychological Services, the director of occupational and environmental safety and the sexual assault support services coordinator may be among those needed to speak to the media in the event of an emergency. The associate vice president for news and communications or his/her designee will develop a list of such officials and offer media training on an annual basis.

5.2 Updating

Twice a year, we will need to update a number of items contained in the appendix of this plan.

The assistant vice president for communication services, or his/her designee, will update phone lists for members of the Emergency Leadership Team, Emergency Management Team and Crisis Communications Team. The assistant vice president, working with the Office of Information Technology, will oversee updates and improvements to email lists for internal audiences.

The associate vice president for news and communications, or his/her designee, will oversee updates of media lists and fact sheets.

Posted: December 2007
Revised: May 2009