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 co-founder of PulsePoint Group, told Times Higher Education.
“This is largely because of the diversity of student populations, the age of the students 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 “fundamental 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’ve 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 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.”
Print headline: How to manage a PR crisis and protect your reputation