Tuesday, October 09, 2012

WaPo series sheds light on U-Va. PR damage control

Communicators of all types, but especially those in higher education, should take the time to read "At U-Va., emails show faltering efforts at crisis control after Sullivan ouster" from the Washington Post. The story is pieced together from more than 2,500 emails sought under state public records laws after the university's governing board fired, then rehired, the president last summer.

It describes the governing board's rector, or chair, Helen Dragas, directing damage control efforts that ignored the advice of the university's spokeswoman, associate vice president Carol Wood, but spent $250,000 on the services of three PR firms hired after the decision to fire the president backfired. For communications directors, it's your worst nightmare, another effort to avoid bad publicity, coming at a high price: Solid and knowledgeable home-team advice is ignored, a major action is taken without thinking about the public consequences or how they'll be handled, and outside counsel brought in to close the barn door after the horse is gone.

Wood demonstrated professionalism and good advisement when confronted with a decision to mass-email a third statement from the head of the board to the university community. Her reply to the board rector didn't win the day, but will win your admiration:
“I am well aware of the fact that you don’t trust my advice — that has been very clearly communicated to me by all three of the outside PR firms you have talked with — and I’m sorry for that,” Wood wrote. “But I sincerely believe that sending one more e-mail to alumni today will result in another onslaught of negative responses from alumni."
It's not noted in the Post, but Wood recently announced her retirement as the university's spokesperson after 17 years in the role.

This type of situation doesn't wind up on my list of what an outside trainer can do that the in-house communicator can't, although I admire the consultant who drafted a resignation letter for the university rector. But I've also spent plenty of time on your side of this fence as the in-house communicator. So I know more than a few of you will read this, shake your head and say "That won't happen here," or "That'd happen here, but I can't do anything about it."

Just for today, though, I'd encourage you to consider what you could be doing, now, to make sure your company or organization doesn't get caught in this way. That's the entire philosophy behind don't get caught: Making sure you don't get caught unprepared for a crisis. Can you use this article to suggest a planning session that walks through your organization's biggest potential crises and how they'd play out publicly? Or a session with your own team to anticipate a variety of responses that you might be asked to put forward, and whether they'd actually work? What do you need to ask for, budget-wise and otherwise, to be prepared?

You might push it further, too. Does the chair of your board know you, and how you respond and advise the leadership? Do other senior executives know and trust you and what you've done lately? Are you keeping them up to date more than annually, or with more than a written report? Does the communications team need to do what one staffer of mine used to call "gentle promotion for the department," in the form of in-house briefings and open Q&A sessions for other colleagues? Do your reports to others highlight the fact that you're looking for a heads-up about potential issues, rather than a call after the horse has left the barn? And in the end, you need to decide something for yourself: If all that fails, what will you do, as a professional?

Many of my clients ask for media training sessions or communications strategy sessions that anticipate issues and crises and work through not only responses, but their consequences. Such sessions give you the chance to see how others on your team will respond--a surprise waiting to happen that you can deal with now--and to work through the realities of the situation before the issue arises. If I'm facilitating such a session, you get to sit back and observe those reactions. Your senior executives, from your CEO on down, will get the chance to anticipate and understand how you work through communications issues before they become issues. Let me know if I can help you do that, with an email to info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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