The Media Is Outside: What Now?

July 2014 | 0 Comments  Average 3 out of 5

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Educational institutions can face a crisis at any time, from a student death to a financial scandal, sexual misconduct, or a compliance problem. Administrators focus on preventing and mitigating such damaging incidents, but another key element of protecting a school, college, or university is developing, practicing, and implementing a crisis communications plan.

"The theme of concern, of compassion, and of taking steps to do the right thing—that must be immediate."

—Rhonda Barnat, Abernathy MacGregor Group

Your response in the first 60 minutes of a crisis will become indelible, said Rhonda Barnat, managing director of the Abernathy MacGregor Group, a public relations (PR) company in New York. While you can—and should—wait to confirm facts, you can’t wait to convey a message of concern. “The theme of concern, of compassion, and of taking steps to do the right thing—that must be immediate,” she said.

That approach has worked for AFS Intercultural Programs Inc., which offers international exchange programs to more than 12,000 high school juniors and seniors annually. “The first thing we try to express is that the safety of our participants is our number one priority,” said Larry Barnett, director of program services and risk management. “We do this because it is honestly the way we feel and the principles on which the organization was founded.”

He recalled one incident in which a U.S. participant lost a significant amount of weight while staying with a family abroad, possibly because of an eating disorder that wasn’t discovered in the application process.

“The first thing we try to express is that the safety of our participants is our number one priority.”

—Larry Barnett, AFS Intercultural Programs Inc.

In this case, the media implied that he went on one of our programs and was underfed,” Barnett said. “We had a big media blowout, not so much focused on our organization but on exchange students in general,” raising questions about whether it was appropriate for students to travel to certain countries and the frequency of such problems. “It became an industry spotlight. We were very proactive in trying to express sympathy and demonstrate that we were not irresponsible in the care of the participant.”

AFS voluntarily improved its already rigorous screening process. “Generally, participants apply for a program a year before they actually leave. In that time, a lot of things could happen, including drastic changes in their weight and body composition,” he said. AFS now requires applicants to complete a medical addendum form before departing on the trip. “If we note a drastic weight loss, that’s a red flag that needs more follow-up because it could be a sign of a potential eating disorder.”

AFS frequently updates procedures based on experience. “We want to demonstrate that we have policies and procedures in place to address issues before they occur,” Barnett said. “We go above and beyond what the Department of State requires when we select the candidates and the families they will be staying with. We document these records and procedures and make it clear we have followed our guidelines and those of the industry and government.”

Is Outside Expertise Necessary?

If an incident could generate negative media and/or legal exposure, Barnett seeks outside expertise to assist AFS’ crisis team. “We consider the possible impact of the story on AFS’ reputation.” A natural disaster would be unlikely to generate negative publicity, but the mishandling of an accusation of sexual misconduct, for example, could be damaging, even if the organization wasn’t at fault.

A crisis management team comprising attorneys, school leaders, insurance representatives, and crisis communications experts can mitigate such damage, said Barnat, whose PR firm has offices around the country and partners around the world.

"A good crisis counselor will have extensive experience with labor disputes, disasters, and fatalities.”

—Michael Fineman, Fineman PR

It’s important to look for expert help when there is a once-in-a-lifetime event or when something on a campus is intersecting with other national issues,” she said. “We find that campuses, which have many experts in all areas of scientific endeavor, are very open and used to working with outside experts to help move through a very serious, life-changing issue.”

Michael Fineman, president of Fineman PR in San Francisco, recommends seeking outside help as soon you realize the situation will reverberate through multiple audiences. “A crisis often represents a threat to the institution and to people’s jobs, livelihoods, and careers. There’s a great deal of emotion involved. Schools in that situation need to get an outside perspective. A good crisis counselor will have extensive experience with labor disputes, disasters, and fatalities,” he said. Without professional guidance, schools can dig a deeper hole with inappropriate communications.

"I make sure our team knows that there’s no financial disincentive to use the resources available to them through ProResponse."

—Elizabeth Carmichael, Five Colleges Inc.

Elizabeth Carmichael, director of compliance and risk management at Five Colleges Inc. in Amherst, Mass., provides resources to the communication response team in times of crisis. “I’ve had information sessions with our members’ communication teams about the ProResponse plan offered by UE,” she said. “I make sure our team knows that there’s no financial disincentive to use the resources available to them through ProResponse.”

ProResponse, UE’s supplemental crisis response program, is aligned with UE’s Cool Head, Warm HeartTM philosophy, in recognition that crisis response requires a rational approach to legal matters and a thoughtful appreciation for the emotional trauma of the circumstance. ProResponse provides immediate assistance when eligible members need expert services, including:

  • Trauma or grief counseling
  • Emergency call center services
  • Crisis communications services
  • Threat assessment case consultation
  • Sexual misconduct investigation
  • E-discovery consultation

By Margo Vanover Porter, a freelance business and education writer in Virginia.

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