PR crises don’t have to mean so­cial (me­dia) sui­cide

The dawn of the dig­i­tal age means uni­ver­si­ties must re­think how they re­spond to bad press, the au­thor of a new book tells So­phie Inge

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CON­TENTS - So­phie.inge@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­

Whether it is a sex­ual mis­con­duct scan­dal, stu­dent mis­de­meanours, or a row over a phil­an­thropic do­na­tion, univer­si­ties have had more than their fair share of neg­a­tive head­lines in re­cent years.

This comes as no sur­prise to Jeff Hunt, who has more than 30 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in cri­sis man­age­ment.

“The two most is­sues-rich en­vi­ron­ments in the world are air­lines and univer­si­ties,” Mr Hunt, the co­founder of PulsePoint Group, told Times Higher Education.

“This is largely be­cause of the age and di­ver­sity of stu­dent pop­u­la­tions, and the range of things that can hap­pen on cam­pus. Un­for­tu­nately, it just cre­ates a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties for bad things to hap­pen.”

Many such crises re­veal is­sues of sig­nif­i­cant con­cern – and pub­lic in­ter­est – on univer­sity cam­puses. Nev­er­the­less, know­ing how to re­spond to such in­ci­dents, and how to min­imise the im­pact on the aca­demic mis­sion of the in­sti­tu­tion, are a key part of univer­sity man­age­ment’s role these days.

In his new book, Brand Un­der Fire: A New Play­book for Cri­sis Man­age­ment in the Dig­i­tal Age, Mr Hunt says that the nat­u­ral reaction to in­tense out­side scru­tiny and an es­ca­lat­ing flow of events is to adopt a siege men­tal­ity.

But, he ar­gues, this is a po­ten­tial trap that can lure in­sti­tu­tions into paral­y­sis and in­ac­tion.

Here, he out­lines five prin­ci­ples for the ef­fec­tive man­age­ment of crises in the dig­i­tal age.


The grow­ing use of dig­i­tal and so­cial me­dia chan­nels re­flects “fun- da­men­tal mis­trust” of in­sti­tu­tions, Mr Hunt said. As a re­sult, univer­si­ties must be “au­then­tic” in their com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

For ex­am­ple, within the first 18 months of Gre­gory Fenves’ ten­ure as pres­i­dent of the Univer­sity of Texas at Austin, the in­sti­tu­tion ex­pe­ri­enced a stu­dent’s mur­der, sev­eral racial abuse in­ci­dents, and a con­tro­ver­sial de­bate over re­mov­ing Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues from cam­pus.

“While it would have been easy for the newly ap­pointed pres­i­dent to speak in an in­sti­tu­tional voice to ex­plain each of these mat­ters and the univer­sity’s ac­tions re­lated to them, Pres­i­dent Fenves ex­pertly con­veyed au­then­tic emo­tions in each case,” said Mr Hunt. “It made him trust­wor­thy and be­liev­able as a leader, and po­si­tioned him to han­dle fu­ture crises with emo­tional equity in the bank.”


The Penn­syl­va­nia State Univer­sity child sex­ual abuse scan­dal – which saw col­lege foot­ball coach Jerry San­dusky jailed for his abuse of young boys on cam­pus premises – il­lus­trated the im­por­tance of trans­parency, said Mr Hunt.

“Very early on – and some would even sug­gest too early on – Penn State owned that cri­sis. It very quickly put se­nior lead­er­ship on leave be­fore bring­ing in a third party to come in and do an in­de­pen­dent in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

The univer­sity also in­stalled an in­terim pres­i­dent, Rod­ney Erick­son, af­ter the pre­vi­ous pres­i­dent Graham Spanier was forced to re­sign – thereby en­sur­ing that there was a hu­man face to the cri­sis aftermath.


Rather than wait­ing un­til the cri­sis oc­curs, it is bet­ter to be pre­pared with the type of con­tent that you need to de­fend your­selves against any ac­cu­sa­tions, Mr Hunt said.

“Per­haps nowhere is the con­trast so sharp as the dif­fer­ence be­tween Michi­gan State Univer­sity’s re­sponse to the [Larry] Nas­sar cri­sis [when a sports physi­cian was con­victed of sex­u­ally abus­ing young ath­letes] and Penn State’s han­dling of the San­dusky scan­dal,” Mr Hunt said. “MSU moved egre­giously slowly, while PSU acted un­ex­pect­edly quickly. By the time San­dusky went to trial, PSU had set­tled the ma­jor­ity of claims. But in MSU’s case, most peo­ple didn’t know about any of it un­til well af­ter it was pub­lic.”


“Be­fore the dig­i­tal era, we de­ployed a mes­sage dur­ing the day, watched the evening news bul­letins and then com­mis­sioned overnight polling to see how peo­ple re­acted to the mes­sage. We would then ad­just it ac­cord­ingly,” Mr Hunt said. “In this day and age, we now have very so­phis­ti­cated tech­nolo­gies which al­low us to lis­ten to the on­line con­ver­sa­tion and see how our mes­sages are res­onat­ing in real time.”

This ap­proach, he said, should help univer­si­ties to avoid ac­cu­sa­tions of be­ing “tone-deaf”. Nowhere was this more ev­i­dent than in Bay­lor Univer­sity’s han­dling of the sex as­sault scan­dal that its foot­ball teams en­coun­tered a few years ago.

“De­spite am­ple ev­i­dence that they were los­ing the pub­lic per­cep­tion bat­tle, they con­tin­ued to re­main highly se­cre­tive,” Mr Hunt said. “They’ve never fully is­sued the re­port they funded to in­ves­ti­gate the scan­dal, leav­ing many to ques­tion the in­tegrity of the in­sti­tu­tion.”


Cre­ativ­ity is not nec­es­sar­ily as­so­ci­ated with crises, Mr Hunt ad­mit­ted, but, for him, “if the con­tent you use to ex­plain your po­si­tion isn’t rich, com­pelling or timely, peo­ple are go­ing to tune out”.

Once again, it is key to be pre­pared, he said. For ex­am­ple, in the case of a shoot­ing on cam­pus, there is no way that a univer­sity can pre­pare for the ex­act sit­u­a­tion.

But “to help fill that vac­uum” in the early mo­ments af­ter an in­ci­dent, a univer­sity can share “all the steps you’ve taken to try to pre­vent some­thing like that hap­pen­ing and all the things you’re do­ing to try to ad­dress it.

“This is the kind of in­for­ma­tion you can start to share al­most im­me­di­ately – it will be­gin to es­tab­lish some au­then­tic­ity and trans­parency.”

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