Evaluating Alma Mater In Crisis

It’s one thing to analyze the crisis response of a university. In 20 years, I’ve had the privilege to work with more than a half-dozen institutions to help them through times of bad news. Those are often the first stories I jump on to evaluate responses, so as to provide the most current counsel possible when clients need it.

But it can be a whole thing to try to put in perspective the actions of my alma mater, Syracuse University, in times of adversity. This week, though, I was busy with multiple client matters, including one potential crisis situation, when the Syracuse student newspaper, The Daily Orange, released a video shot inside engineering fraternity chapter house Theta Tau, featuring disgusting, disparaging language. I couldn’t analyze it in real time. The story broke Wednesday and by the time I had time to move into detailed analysis mode, a lot had happened. Now, it’s easier to look at the University’s response, largely after the fact, without being clouded by emotion.

The University found itself all over national news for a couple of days because the crisis, like so much bad news tends to do in this age, focused on a video. Audiences themselves could become outraged by the actual language used by the students. It was a national embarrassment for the University and locally, called into question the treatment on campus of minority groups, as well as governance of the fraternity system.

Overall, the University’s Chancellor, Kent Syverud, and his team took a commendable approach. The Chancellor was proactive in communicating and definitive in language. Communications pros should check out the messaging on the University’s site. Audiences, such as alumni, received email updates, even Friday evening and Saturday morning, as the story continued to unfold and the fraternity was kicked off the campus. The text included clear language that provided important facts and reassurance, allowing the University to speak for itself, so others did not have to speak for it.

But, refreshingly, the University’s response extended beyond written statements. They made the Chancellor available for interviews, including with NBC News, where he was able to speak for himself, not just via a written statement. As seen in this Daily Orange story, University professionals used video, not just text, to communicate messages.

But it wasn’t perfect. One potentially significant misstep along the way, the Chancellor not attending a student forum hours after the story broke, was an example of a mistake too many institutions make in times like this – they forget their students are their customers and primary audience. But, the Chancellor attended a protest, personally apologized and agreed to be more accessible and visible to students.

Often, in these situations feature internal tugs-of-war between lawyers and administrators, which lawyers tend to win, leading to a communications void. In this case, the Chancellor is a lawyer, former law professor and law school dean. He and his team didn’t allow a fear of the courtroom to get in the way of an effort to communicate.

While there is clearly much work left to do on campus, the University’s national reputation seems to have been saved in recent days, by following sound communications fundamentals. Heading into this week, if the public understands that the video (and another that followed) reflects the actions of a single group of students, and not the culture of the institution overall, these efforts should be deemed successful and, if everything continues in that direction, could be a model for other colleges and universities.