Prepare and respond quickly to embarrassing incidents, experts say
- Officials at the Citadel in South Carolina, which faced a widely publicized controversial event in 2015 with a group of student cadets dressed as Ku Klux Klansmen, say colleges can effectively handle a troublesome incident on campus by preparing well and responding quickly and truthfully, according to Inside Higher Education.
- Speaking at a meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers, administrators at the military college recounted how they rapidly developed a simple, truthful message in response to images of students dressed as Ku Klux Klan members and singing Christmas carols.
- Inside Higher Education reported that a timely investigation resulted a month later in one expulsion, two suspensions and one other disciplinary action, which was “generally accepted as appropriate by civil rights leaders in the region.”
Connie Ledoux Book, the Citadel's provost at the time and now president at Elon University in North Carolina, said that she found the “research-based decisionmaking” that she was used to in higher education wasn’t effective when the media had the images and needed a statement from the college in 10 minutes, which, she noted is often the circumstance in such situations.
Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, in contrast, was criticized for its failure to respond to student protests adequately and saw a resulting considerable expense and a 4.5% drop in enrollment. An administrator at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, which had to deal with a free speech issue that often arises on campuses, said a proactive response was effective. Michigan State University officials have also been criticized for not responding quickly enough to reports that a gymnastics team doctor was molesting athletes.
A public relations executive, writing in Fast Company magazine, says colleges and universities need to have damage control strategies become part of their “communicative DNA.” Institutions need to implement crisis communication strategies that include an authentic response, control of the narrative and social media use. Institutions can be criticized if communications during a controversy is handled poorly.
Book also mentioned the University of Missouri, which had a series of controversies that caused a stream of bad publicity and a slip in enrollment. According to a university newspaper, the institution hired a top public relations firm for more than $250,000 to help it handle the controversies and improve its image. Some experts also say diversity issues at the heart of some controversies should be addressed before incidents arise.
- Inside Higher Education Best Way to Contain a Crisis? Practice