Tuesday, July 22, 2014

In times of crisis, where are your allies?

Last week's crisis communications misfires were plentiful, but let's focus on a Geneva, NY college (two, actually) and a media onslaught.

Hobart & William Smith Colleges and The New York Times went toe-to-toe over the Times' account of an alleged rape and its aftermath. It's a tragic story, no matter who spins the tale. A freshman student is subjected to an alleged rape, and the resulting investigations by college and local law enforcement failed to bring about action to discipline the offender(s) or change policy.

Hobart's response to the Times' devastating article? At first, no comments to the media, a letter on their website, and a follow-up letter to the editor of the Times from the chair of the colleges' board of trustees. Later, a heartfelt letter from college President Mark Gearan.

HWS President Mark Gearan,
By Kevin Colton (Kevin Colton)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I worked at the Colleges a few years ago, when a student died in a fall from a balcony during a fraternity-sponsored party. I hope things have changed since then. At the time, the Colleges had no crisis communications plan. From the looks of the "Anna" story, the response has involved relying on the Colleges' president and Board chair as their spokespeople on this painful issue.

Expressing defense and sympathy is fine, but repairing HWS' reputation calls for external validation and action from an objective third party or ally, not a president or trustee. Enlisting and updating external allies prior to the Times' story would have been a sound strategy. Now, they'll struggle to buy a friend.

The district attorney, interviewed by a local TV station, told reporters that the victim's parents declined to pursue a criminal investigation, and took issue with some details in the Times' article. The Times stood by its story.

Now, Gearan, the Colleges' president, will be pressed into extended damage control duty.

What can colleges and universities learn from this firefight? You need a crisis communications plan, no matter how warm the relations between students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni. HWS is an expensive private college, favored by families with plenty of wherewithal. And trial lawyers.

A plan should include:
  • a communications audit, 
  • determining whether the college president becomes the sole spokesperson (he or she doesn't need to wear that hat), 
  • identifying and cultivating third-party advisors who can speak on your behalf, and 
  • scenario training. 
If your college communications office doesn't have the bench depth to conduct an audit or train for scenarios, enlist an external and experienced public relations pro to bring a dispassionate eye to the process.

I'm available.