This post supports a lesson on crisis management and crisis response. Maybe it can help us all. It’s a long one, so go get some fresh coffee.
(Update, Friday, May 1) President Lefton has broken his silence with a lengthy email, but it focuses not so much on last week’s events but on the upcoming two days — traditionally the biggest party weekend of the year. Wasn’t sure of the best way to share Dr. Lefton’s email, so I’ve opted to post the complete text as “Comment 17” of this post.)
Talk about timing.
It’s the final 2 weeks of PR Case Studies class, and the topic is crisis management. I need a fresh case to underscore key points from the readings. Where to turn?
Enter the Kent State Riot – 2009 Edition. (Twitter hashtag: #ksuriots) It was an event complete with bonfires in the street, rock and bottle throwing, tear gas, paddy wagons, and handcuffs. By some miracle, it ended without serious injury,* so I don’t feel bad about making it a classroom lesson. I am a teacher, after all.
Our student-run KentNewNet was all over the story; some of their photos and video were picked up CNN, CBS, ABC and Fox. Yep, we were national news again, and again Kent State’s reputation took a beating.
I opened Monday’s class with this question: “How many of your parents called you Saturday night or Sunday morning to make sure you were OK?” Most raised their hands. Parents either saw news of the riots on TV or heard about it from friends who had. Parents were worried. Watch the videos and you’ll know why.
Student unrest is part of Kent State’s DNA. In the 70s, political turmoil here helped end a war in Southeast Asia. You all know about that one. Today, all it takes to spark a riot at Kent State is plenty of beer and 80-degree weather.
Riot 2009 stemmed from an off-campus street party dubbed CollegeFest. Though not a university-sanctioned event, it drew hundreds of KSU students — and the drinking started early. About 8:40 p.m., a young woman’s arrest touched off a series of events that eventually led to the call-up of 125 cops from 5 departments along with the regional SWAT team.
How did Kent State University react? Barely — and badly. The university’s limp response earns a failing grade, even to a professor who wants to be charitable.
Soon after things got out of hand on College Street, a Daily Kent Stater reporter called President Lester Lefton for comment. News of the event must have taken him by surprise. I learned about Lefton’s response from this tweet by DKS Editor Tim Magaw:
Lefton is taking plenty of criticism for his non-response. Here’s what the Daily Kent Stater’s editorial board said, and here’s a letter from a KSU mom/alumna whose daughter is enrolled at the university.
Rule #1: Be grateful. Bad news often comes from an enterprising reporter’s call, so be sure to say “thank you.” Now you know about the problem, and now you can act. Promise to get back to the reporter once you have information — even if it is Saturday night.
If you have a crisis procedure in place, your the team leaders send staffers to quickly gather facts and assess damage. They phone their reports to an editor, who develops a statement for the Web and talking points for your spokesman. Once you have that info, you return that reporter’s call, starting with “thanks, again.”
Armed with information and talking points, a spokesperson is ready for a stand-up interview on the evening news. Going on camera lets you show your concern for those affected and assure parents and community that matters are under control. By 11 p.m., they were.
It’s Crisis Management 101. But none of it happened.
On Saturday night, the university issued a text message alert asking students to stay clear of the area. Then nothing until midday Sunday, and that, a simple statement without a face. The highlight of the message:
The university is disappointed in the events that have occurred and finds the behavior inexcusable.
By Sunday morning, there was plenty of information available and plenty of people seeking it. More than 57,000 visited KentNewsNet’s site on Sunday alone. But they heard not a word from a KSU official. To be fair, a KSU spokesman did respond to some reporters’ questions on Sunday afternoon, but those comments didn’t make the cut on most of the Web stories, as they added nothing to the story. From the AP:
Kent State spokesman Tom Neumann said the students’ behavior is inexcusable and the university is awaiting more information from police.
“Obviously, things got a little bit out of hand,” Neumann said. The university has not received any reports of injured students, he said.
Finally, around 11 a.m. Monday, another prepared statement arrived via email.
When crisis impacts your organization, as this one did Kent State, silence or near silence isn’t an option. And “no comment,” no matter how late the hour, violates the fundamentals of media relations. No wonder my PR majors were scratching their heads.
Students I spoke with following the event saw the non-response as aloof and uncaring. Many were angry, some even embarrassed for their school. One has to wonder if parents, alumni, faculty, staff and community might not feel the same way. And you know what they say: Perception is reality.
What went wrong? I have a theory. During my 17 years teaching PR at the university, never once has public relations had a seat at management’s table. At Kent State, the top “communication” executive has been either a fundraiser or a marketer. While organizations need both functions, you can’t market your way out of a crisis. Veteran PR professionals tend to be well schooled in crisis management.
We all know PR could not have prevented this incident once it began. But a PR professional certainly could have minimized the damage to reputation by responding quickly and sincerely. Alas, all the PR advice in the world doesn’t help when the client ignores it. Maybe that’s what happened.
I don’t relish criticizing the folks who sign my paycheck, and I do it seldom. But if I don’t share this lesson in my own community — and in my classrooms — I’m not doing my job. It’s a teachable moment, and I’m a teacher.
Thanks to HST for inspiring the headline for this post.
* While no serious injuries occurred at the CollegeFest incident, a police officer from the Village of Lakemore collapsed and died from apparent heart failure after returning home from riot duty. So the incident is not without a tragic footnote.