When scandal strikes, be the hero not the villain

I suspect that few higher education marketing and communications professionals relish crisis communications, or public relations during times of scandal or tragedy. Except for public relations professionals who specialize in this area, many of us may be unfamiliar with crisis communications principles and may even unintentionally make poor decisions that hurt our organization’s reputation during times of crisis. In higher education, marketing and communications offices have an extensive variety of responsibilities, meaning that crisis communications may not be a priority until a crisis occurs.

How do you respond when crisis strikes? What does your board chair, president, vice president, or dean ask you to do? Hide? Say nothing? Deny, deflect, and defend?

Regardless whether you are planning ahead or are finding yourself in the middle of a scandal or tragedy, I highly recommend that you read Marilyn Cavicchia’s “Crisis communicator tells how to work with media, not be the villain” article at the American Bar Association, which includes advice from Bruce Hennes, a Cleveland-based crisis communications professional.

Mr. Hennes says, “Tell the truth, tell it first, and tell it all.”

If you discover that your college or university provided incorrect information to U.S. News or other rankings, for example, you might select one of the following courses of action:

  • Hide it hoping that no one notices. (What happens when someone does notice and news media calls for a comment?)
  • Announce your finding, what caused it, how you corrected it, and what you will do to prevent it from happening again.

How would your campus respond to this or other scandals or tragedies? Mr. Hennes’ advice will help you think through the implications of your response, and help you make the case for crisis communications with your organization’s leadership.

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