When a Crisis Hits Campus, It Helps to Know Your Client

2012 Oct 16
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Much has been discussed regarding the recent botched attempt to force a leadership change at the University of Virginia and the resulting public relations crisis that followed. The Washington Post recently reported on the PR missteps, which demonstrates the limitations of traditional public relations during a crisis like the one that engulfed U Va. If you’re an academic administrator, you should consider several important lessons to avoid the pitfalls the Post chronicles.

First, be cautious of firms or individuals who have made their reputations and fortunes solely in corporate PR. Colleges and universities operate under profoundly different rules and norms than corporations. Unlike most companies, colleges and universities do not operate under command-and-control models of employer-employee relations. Free speech and academic freedom are integral to colleges and universities, and efforts to obfuscate information are destined to fail. Tenure, for example, is an inconvenient obstacle to campus executives who would rather suppress information than share it because executives can’t fire the campus gadfly. Also, public institutions operate under sunshine and other right-to-know laws that ensure that embarrassing emails and illicit tweets will eventually see the light of day. These norms don’t prevail in most corporations, so the playbook for a corporate PR expert is a lot different than the one that guides those who are comfortable operating on a college campus.

Second, using overtly business-oriented language and principals is a sure-fire way to raise the collective hackles of a campus community. A college or university is a shared enterprise, with many programs and endeavors that are inquiry rather than profit-based (i.e., their return-on-investment is intellectual, not financial). Falling back on corporate-speak to justify a decision – however well-intentioned – is never a good strategy on a university campus. Campus leaders are well aware of the disruptions roiling their world; they don’t need PR people or corporate executives to remind them.

Third, alumni, faculty, and students have a different relationship to their university than do customers to a product or service they use. For many of these folks, their relationship to their school is one of the most salient, emotionally resonant relationships in their lives. Any communications that is seen as inauthentic or diversionary will inevitably backfire.

U Va undoubtedly hired communications pros who had experienced great success in their careers helping manage corporate clients through difficult crises. But, as the Board of U Va came to understand, knowing the peculiarities and values of university communities is crucial to guiding them in times of trouble.

Rodney Ferguson, Principal

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