What it takes to handle a campus PR crisis

Critical situations can be handled with empathy for people on all sides of an issue

From student protests to inflammatory incidents, colleges are being forced to maintain a good public image in light of growing controversies. Here are some of the ways that colleges have learned to respond efficiently and effectively to PR crises on campus:

Act swiftly

While it's important to have all the facts at hand before making any rash decisions, addressing sticky situations as soon as possible shows the campus community that the administration takes its concerns seriously.

Students at Oberlin College received media flak for criticizing the college food services' inauthentic imitations of ethnic foods, which many students said amounted to cultural appropriation. However, Oberlin President Marvin Krislov says the situation was handled with maturity and grace. Dining services met with the food vendor and students to discuss solutions to the problem. 

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"This is exactly what you want to see in an institution—responsiveness to a concern that's raised," he says. "It was dealt with."

Be prepared

It's impossible to know when a PR crisis will arise, but considering what's happened on college campuses as of late, experts say it's best to prepare proactively for one.

American University (AU) stays on alert for possible PR crises, especially at certain times of year. The university's communication staff were discouraged from taking vacations in mid-August to ensure that they would be able to respond to crises that could occur before classes even began.

AU uses social media monitoring software to keep tabs on potential crises and collects information from departments to communicate with activists before protests take effect. The goal of these interactions is to tell protestors, "Let's establish some rules of the road so that you can be successful and work is not disrupted and academic activities go on as planned," says Teresa Flannery, VP for communication at AU.

Carefully review messages

Even well-meaning statements can be misconstrued or read differently by members of the campus community. That's why it's important to have several pairs of eyes reviewing communications materials before they are distributed across campus.

University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks learned this lesson when he sent a campus-wide email on the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley calling for "civility and respect in our personal interactions." Many found the language Dirks used to be dismissive of such a pivotal event.

"The first thing I learned is that you never sign off on a message when you're late getting to the airport," Dirks says.

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Now, between six and ten people review most messages before they are made public, according to Dirks. He also spends more time looking over his own words to make sure all external messages are written with the utmost care.

Be genuine

Sometimes it's difficult to know what to do when a crisis shakes a campus, but expressing genuine sentiments of goodwill goes a long way toward mending fences.  

When some students at Texas A&M University hurled racial slurs and insults at a group of mostly black and Latino high school students visiting campus, the university immediately worked to rectify the damage done. The vice president and associate provost for diversity left a meeting to find the students who had been harassed while President Michael Young spoke with senior administrators by phone to get the full story. Later that evening, Young and his staff wrote a statement released the next day that condemned the incident, assured an investigation would ensue, and called for "a deeper discussion about freedom of speech and inclusion" on campus.

"We didn't try to minimize it. We didn't try to say this is an isolated incident," Young says. "We said we don't believe this is what represents us, but this is something we're going to take really seriously" (Gardner, Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/9; Gardner, Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/9). 

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