Scandals teach schools some vital lessons in crisis comms

In 2006, Duke University was propelled into a frenzy of media scrutiny following allegations of sexual abuse by three lacrosse players that were later dismissed.

In 2006, Duke University was propelled into a frenzy of media scrutiny following allegations of sexual abuse by three lacrosse players that were later dismissed.

Scandal revisited the college world in late 2011 at high-profile schools Penn State and Syracuse. Much as corporations do, institutes of higher learning face their share of crises.

Initial response
In the weeks following the initial accusations of sexual molestation against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the subsequent dismissal of head coach Joe Paterno, the school focused on the community's need to express heartfelt concern for the victims, says Cynthia Hall, associate VP of university relations.

"Each day has brought new complexities, not the least of which have been the legal issues and an inability to speak as we'd like to so as not to jeopardize the legal process," she tells PRWeek.

In the days following the Sandusky news, the controversy grew as numerous university staffers were alleged to have known about the problem and failed to act. Questions about transparency arose in the media and negative public sentiment over the handling of the situation created a growing PR nightmare for the university.

As part of the school's image restoration, Hall highlights its new president and football coach, a new relationship with the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, and its creation of the Center for the Protection of Children.

Penn State rebuilds image

In mid-January, Penn State president Rodney Erickson hosted town-hall meetings for alumni in Pittsburgh, King of Prussia, PA, and New York City to discuss the school's crisis response. Media were also invited.

In New York, Erickson stressed an "atmosphere of greater openness." He faced tense and emotional alums, many who felt Joe Paterno's firing lacked due process.

Prior to that, the university released to Associated Press correspondence between Erickson and trustees immediately after the scandal broke noting plans to align messages between the school's PR team and athletic department and offering talking points for donors.

"We have a strong committed leader in new president Rodney Erickson," she says. "He reflects our values and the ideal of our brand. We will be highlighting the many significant contributions the university makes in academia, research, and service."

While corporate in-house communicators make headway with C-suite buy-in, Michael Schoenfeld, SVP of public affairs and government relations at Duke University, says schools' communications departments are at the "trailing edge" of this trend.

"Major crises involving universities come fast and furious," he adds. "They require some intense activity. Many times, institutions tend not to pay attention to communications until a raging storm and then suddenly they are interested in a more sophisticated communications operation."

Schoenfeld leads a communications operation of about 150 people who are dispersed among business units.

Interested parties
The number of audiences institutions need to pay attention to often outnumbers those of corporations.

Schoenfeld's central team of about 35 people handle news, marketing and strategic communications, as well as content, including video and photography, for 40,000 employees and 14,000 undergrad students worldwide, as well as alumni, parents, sports fans, donors, policymakers, community members, and patients of the on-site medical center.

"The map of constituents we deal with is as large as any kind of institution," he explains. "And they all have a very deep tie to Duke. People have as intense a tie to their university as they do to their family, religion, and those things closest to them."

APCO Worldwide EVP Pete Wentz says besides the variety of audiences, the academic community requires more scrupulous attention to transparency than corporations.

"In the corporate world, it's often easier just saying, 'We're going to announce the decision and we're not going to talk about this any further,'" he notes. "In the academic community, they expect substantially more transparency and less secrecy. The community wants to know everything."

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