Bad Craziness: How Kent State Failed ‘Crisis 101’

Report say 125 police officers were called to quell the Kent State riot on April 24. (Daily Kent Stater photo by Katie Roupe.)

Media reports say 125 police officers were called in to quell the Kent State/CollegeFest riot on April 24. (Daily Kent Stater photo by Katie Roupe)

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?

Peace signs seemed a bit out of place -- even for Kent State. (DKS photo by Katie Roupe)

Peace signs seemed a bit out of place -- even for Kent State. (DKS photo by Katie Roupe)

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:

picture-22

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.

34 Responses to Bad Craziness: How Kent State Failed ‘Crisis 101’

  1. Bob Conrad says:

    Another theory: leadership is operating under general communications principles that are influenced by legal counsel rather than by either common sense or sound PR principles.

    The (best) leaders of tomorrow will need to be skilled in crisis response as a regular part of job duties. They ignore crisis communications principles at their own peril.

    • Chris McCue '84 says:

      As a KSU alum and PR professional living in Boston, I was saddened by what I read in the Boston Globe about the CollegeFest riot. My first reaction was frustration with the students. Don’t they know how long and hard KSU has worked to change its reputation after the shootings? Just two weeks ago, I recommended the school to my nephew who is looking for a great Journalism/PR program. My sister (a college administrator) certainly won’t want him going to KSU now. My second reaction was shock — I was stunned to see the lame response by President Lefton on the KSU Web site. He needs to speak to all the great work the university has achieved since the 70s, and give specific examples. He needs to say that each and every student involved in the riots needs to be held accountable — that they’ve essentially harmed their own future professional reputation by allowing a party to get out of hand. My most latest reaction was disgust at the lack of proactive outreach to us alumni about recent incidents. I’m a regular donor, and I’ve recommended KSU to many high school students interested in studying journalism or a communications field. Right now I’m totally embarrassed by the university’s response, as well as by the students’ totally irresponsible actions. I lived in an off-campus house when I attended KSU, and we had many memorable parties, but we never would have allowed things to get as out of hand as they did this past weekend — and that goes for both students and administrators alike. Shame on both. (And thanks to Bill for calling it as he sees it. At least someone is willing to take a stand.)

      • Bill Sledzik says:

        Thanks for a thoughtful response, Chris. Your comment captures well the reputation damage these events bring. Even the most masterful of responses by our administration would not have changed the negative headlines. But some form of outreach, first to parents of the kids attending KSU, and then to alumni who support us, may have softened the impact among those closest to the university.

        Such programs are easy to locate with a little best-practices research. Start at Miami University right here in Ohio. While my son was enrolled there, I three times received emails from the president’s office addressing incidents that had threatened the safety of students on campus. In each case, the messages arrived before news coverage — and there was news coverage. It impressed me, and I’m still telling the story 4 years later!

        But you’re so right about student responsibility. Anything KSU does to patch its wounds must include efforts to change attitudes and behaviors of all students. BTW, our local police officials could use a dose of the message as well. Going back to “Crisis 101,” the real damage tends to come in how one manages (or in our case, doesn’t manage) the aftermath of the event.

        Now, about that nephew of yours — we need to have a chat. If nothing else, coverage of the riot should convince anyone that student journalists at Kent State are top shelf young professionals.

  2. Allison says:

    Never did I think College Fest would grow to make national headlines. I still have my t-shirt from the first year where it was just beer pong and cornhole.

    But really, why isn’t PR at the table?

  3. Excellent comments and right on target. P.R. is not fluff when done correctly, and the profession certainly should have a seat at the management table. Now, I’m sure, the university (my alma mater, I might add) is turning to the p.r. folks to do damage control several days too late. Failure to communicate is a crisis magnified.

    Kudos to Tim Magaw for calling the university president for a comment and for holding his feet to the fire, even if it was one he didn’t know about.

  4. Chris says:

    Great post. My favorite line: “you can’t market your way out of a crisis.”

    As a member of the student community, the impact of this crisis is evident, but the conversations span far beyond the reach of just students. I’m interested to see how the university reacts to continuing drama of the situation. Last night’s fire should be an indication that a crisis unattended to will only fester, continuing to breed frustration and damage reputation.

  5. Chuck Hemann says:

    Bill – what a surprise…another good post from you. The response was terrible, i’ll grant you, but is there any value in defending “management because the story in question has been “blown up” largely because of social media? I’m not saying it’s right, but many executives have a social media blindspot in times of crisis.

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Good point, Chuck. This story has expanded its reach and intensity because of social media — most notably Twitter and YouTube. On the other hand, it also hit the mainstream on 4 TV networks and the wire services. Riot’s at Kent State will always be a story thanks to our legacy.

    Because so many crises first emerge in social media (this one did so on Twitter), it’s incumbent on all management, even those with the blind spot, and begin real-time monitoring. Something tells me you could show them how.

  7. Steve Ripple says:

    Provocative post that raises a lot of questions, Mr. Sledzik. As a graduating senior at Kent State I’m concerned with the university’s image in the future. I found their lack of a timely public response deplorable and completely unprofessional. Lefton’s “response” clearly gave the impression that neither he nor the administration is concerned with the well being of its students or the Kent area. Which is interesting when you consider we’re the ones paying his salary. I can only imagine how concerned parents felt from a helpless distance.

    Is there a course of action we can begin now to ensure this lack of a response doesn’t happen again? Is there a way students can get involved on campus in order to encourage the administration to use PR appropriately? Unfortunately, until that happens, I’ll be preparing responses to job interviewers’ inquiries regarding this nationally televised black eye.

    Is there a way you could write Lefton’s devoid-of-rational-thought weekly messages for him? Thank you for the free PR lesson!

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Steve,

    KSU has an excellent crisis plan, and procedures for responding to these things are spelled out within it. They simply weren’t followed this time.

    Looking to the future, you need to look to the past. After the KSU Riots, 2001 Edition (I may be off by a year or two, so don’t quote me), town and gown officials came up with solutions that included student organizations, townspeople, et. al. And for the past 3-4 years, we’ve not seen the craziness that surrounded the May Day celebrations.

    To my knowledge, CollegeFest hasn’t escalated to violence in past years. Truth be known, this year is the first time I’d ever heard of it.

    Hang on to your hat, though. Coming later this week are two more neighborhood parties: “Shermania” and “Drinkin’ on Lincoln.” Let’s hope cooler heads prevail.

  9. Stacy Wessels says:

    I secretly hoped the administration’s disdain for PR would leave the school with former president Cartwright. I see I was wrong. As a graduate of and donor to Kent State and as the parent of a college student, I believe Lefton’s actions Saturday were deplorable. As a former consultant/advisor to the university’s marketing and communications department, I’m not really surprised.

  10. Bill Huey says:

    Since you’ve devoted two consecutive posts to this topic I feel compelled to ask:

    1)Why are they so rowdy there? Is it something in the water? I taught for four years at a university where there was little to do except drink and screw around. Is that the case there?
    2)Is this really about PR, or about management incompetence and lack of leadership? Most university administrators couldn’t run a gas/convenience store, yet the public gives them billions of dollars each year and says, “here, give us some of the higher education, whatever that means.”

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    You raise an excellent point, Bill. I didn’t see any familiar names from the J-School in the police blotter yesterday. Those who weren’t out covering the story for KNN were, perhaps, completing rigorous final projects, rehearsing for their Campaigns presentations or locked in the editing room somewhere in the bowels of Franklin Hall. We don’t make it easy here, and I’d like to think that’s why Kent JMC has such a good reputation in news and PR. (Sorry — another Dizzy Dean moment.)

    That isn’t to say our kids don’t let off steam. I hear the stories, and I see the Facebook photos. But most party after the work is completed, and that generally precludes tapping kegs in the morning. If academic departments expected a lot more of students across the board, we’d all be better off, for sure. But we’d also have fewer students. And that leads into your second point…

    …where you are correct as well. It is a management problem, what happened this past weekend. Where Kent State failed was in “Crisis 101.” The response required in this instance is one almost any junior/mid level PR staffer could handle. But he/she was never asked to — or so it would seem — and that goes to leadership.

    As for college administrators, yes, many of them are woefully incompetent. But isn’t that also the case in banking, manufacturing, etc.? In my corner of Kent State, the College of Communication & Information, we’ve been blessed with outstanding leadership in the past 5-6 years, and you can see the results everywhere you turn.

    But hang onto your hat. With budget pressures inevitable as state funding shrinks, the new era of “responsibility-centered management” has arrived at Kent State and many schools like it. The insider’s name for it: Butts In Seats.

    What were you asking me about students not having enough to do? Sit down, son. Make yourself comfortable. Can I get you anything? An A, a B? Like extra credit with that? That’s a post for another day, and another blogger.

  12. Brian Heath says:

    Well put, Bill.

    When I first heard Lester Lefton’s response to the call from the DKS reporter, I uttered an expression that started with the same letters as the words, “Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot?”

    While to a slight degree I could understand his “no comment”, I was livid (as both a Kent State graduate and a former TV journalist) at his scolding of the reporter for calling him at home on a Saturday night and deeming contacting him in this manner “inappropriate”.

    This was an situation of civil unrest involving the police department from the university he runs, happening near the campus of the university he runs, and involving students attending the university he runs.

    While handling the contact from the DKS reporter might have been inconvenient, handling such contacts is part of his job. He’s paid very well to be the chief executive officer of Kent State University – and I think Lester Lefton dropped the ball in a major way this past weekend.

    A mental image that came to mind when thinking of this whole example of crisis (mis)management involved Lefton as Nero and Kent as Rome – and the former fiddling while the latter burned.

  13. Ed Esposito says:

    This entire mindset — that the gods on high shouldn’t deem it appropropriate to discuss the elephant in the room — is defense at best and credibility-damaging to the worst. One can certainly imagine the president of the University not knowing the situtation first-hand in the first moments but to be so clueless as to ignore the chance to reach out to a key constituency (students) via the very resources the University funds and supports?

    This is the mentality damaging all of our institutions now; repositioning spin rather than reality.

    Memo to Mr. Lefton: what your mother taught you early on is still the best advice. Honesty, open access and treating others as you would hope to be treated is the policy always rewarded with treatment in kind. Do you honestly care so little about the perception of the school you lead and yourself to adopt a more enlightened stance?

  14. […] I’m planning to attend. And I hope the “clients” from Kent State and from the city pay attention. There is some big repair work — communication and otherwise — that needs to be done there following the events of last weekend. […]

  15. Bill Sledzik says:

    Here is the complete text of President Lefton’s regular Friday message. It arrived via email shortly after midnight.

    Good day,

    I had planned to use today’s In A Flash to share some thoughts about the upcoming anniversary of the events of May 4, 1970. I still want to do that and hope you will read my longer-than-usual message in its entirety. But given the events of last weekend, you won’t be surprised that I also want to address the College Fest incident. Specifically, I want to speak directly to Kent Campus students. Although I do so in my role as president, I also remember a past role as the parent of college students. In each of these roles, my top priority has been ensuring the safety, security and well-being of people I care about.

    When our daughters were about to enter college, Linda and I did what most of your parents did: We spoke to them about the importance of balancing the wonderful freedoms of college life with the serious responsibilities of adulthood. And we let them know that we trusted them to exercise common sense — and to listen to their inner voices — as they made decisions from choosing class schedules to choosing friends to choosing how many (if any) beers they would drink when they went out with those friends.

    Despite last weekend’s College Fest — an off-campus, unsanctioned block party on College Avenue that only got ugly late in the day when a small number of individuals made some very poor choices — I trust that you and the vast majority of Kent State students also use sound judgment in your daily lives. I say that because, after three years here, I know the caliber of Kent State students. You are hard working, compassionate and determined to make the world a better place. I also know that, in the spirit of college students everywhere, you want to have as many experiences and as much fun during your college years as possible. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, your university and the city of Kent want you to enjoy your time here and to feel welcome on and off campus — it’s a big part of the reason we are working on projects from extending the Esplanade into downtown to providing space downtown for student-conceived businesses.

    Of course, being part of a university community is a two-way street — one that calls for mutual respect between students and their nonstudent neighbors. Many students and staff members invested significant time and effort in reminding College Avenue residents of that fact prior to College Fest (e.g., Student Affairs staff members joined members of student government and Kent City Council in “walkarounds,” talking to area residents about the wisdom of keeping the celebration lawful and laid-back.). That’s because even though off-campus events such as College Fest are not sponsored or sanctioned by the university, and do not fall under the jurisdiction of our university police department, Kent State operates under the belief that everything possible must be done to ensure the well-being of students on and off campus.

    As we saw, the well-intentioned, proactive efforts of the university and the city could not prevent the unhappy outcome of College Fest. So although you’ll find students and staff walking around the Lincoln and Sherman street areas in an attempt to avert problems this weekend, it’s unlikely they can do so if even a few party-goers act inappropriately (Given a party theme like “Drinkin’ on North Lincoln,” you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to predict the odds of that happening).

    So if you are considering joining one of this weekend’s big blasts, I urge you to also weigh the following facts:

    * City police will make the safety and security of everyone present “job one.” That means state and city laws will be strictly enforced — no debates, no second chances.

    * You will be breaking the law if you engage in under-age drinking; walk or stand in a public area with an open container of alcohol; or violate the city noise ordinance.

    * The events will again attract irresponsible people who have a lot less to lose than you do if they act inappropriately or illegally.

    * If you act inappropriately, you not only are likely to be arrested, but your behavior may be captured on videotape by local news media and/or posted on YouTube for eternity.

    * If you are arrested, you could jeopardize your ability to compete for scholarships, internships and jobs now and in the future.

    * If this weekend’s parties end badly, your alma mater’s reputation and image will be damaged, which can lessen the value of your degree.

    * Even if you behave responsibly — and despite the university and city’s best efforts — no one can fully guarantee your safety if chaos arises in a large (and not entirely sober) crowd.

    With all that in mind, I ask you to think long and hard about whether you want to risk your safety this weekend (or any weekend). If you do choose to attend an end-of-semester party, I urge you to heed the instructions made famous in the landmark TV series Hill Street Blues: “Let’s be careful out there.”

    As I mentioned at the outset, I think it’s important to mention another timely subject: the upcoming commemoration of the events of May 4, 1970. I’m sure most of you observed that many of this week’s news reports insinuated that the events of last weekend echoed the events of May 1970. Those suggestions were irresponsible, unfounded and untrue.

    As most of you know, classes will be in recess from noon to 2 p.m. this Monday as part of the university’s commemoration of the day in 1970 when four Kent State students were killed and nine others were wounded in a confrontation with Ohio National Guardsmen during a protest against the Vietnam War. Some students, faculty and staff will use the time to attend the annual commemoration program organized by the students of the May 4 Task Force. And some (including me) will take part in the annual candlelight walk that starts Sunday night on the Kent Campus Commons and is followed by a silent vigil to honor the memories of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer and William Schroeder. The walk and vigil are a moving tradition started by Dr. Jerry M. Lewis, professor emeritus of sociology, with the help of students.

    Because our community comprises students, faculty and staff from a rich diversity of backgrounds and multiple generations, this year’s commemorative events will, as always, elicit a range of responses — from apathy to anger to anguish. It’s understandable that the May 4 tragedy holds little or no meaning for many members of our community — especially those who, in 1970, were decades from being born. If you are part of that group, or too young to remember the polarizing Vietnam Era, you may not understand the continuing interest in the event and its anniversaries, and you may be perplexed by the continuing commitment to keeping the memory of May 4 alive.

    Whether or not you feel a personal connection to the events and aftermath of May 4, 1970, I don’t think there is any question that the lessons of that day remain relevant, and that they are — or should be — important to Americans of all ages, backgrounds and political perspectives. Those lessons center on the dangers of taking democracy for granted. We must be vigilant about protecting and promoting the democratic values we cherish, including freedom of thought and expression; tolerance, respect and opportunity for all people; social engagement; and nonviolent conflict resolution. Doing just that is at the heart of the university’s annual Symposium on Democracy. This year’s symposium, which is free and open to everyone, will be held May 4 and 5 (details and a full schedule are available at http://www.kent.edu/About/History/May4/Democracy/index.cfm).

    If you want to understand why the events of May 4, 1970, hold a prominent place in the pages of American history — and if you want to understand why the event holds so much meaning for many students who walked here 39 years ago and for countless other members of the Baby Boom generation — I encourage you to attend one or more of this year’s commemorative events. Whatever you choose to do, I hope that you take a moment to appreciate the privilege of living in our great democracy.

    Lester Lefton

  16. Bob Conrad says:

    “…

    “Lester Lefton”

    Fail. Way too long. Assume that what you write won’t be read. Adding more words encourages potential readers not to read it.

    -Bob

    PS Quoting “Hill Street Blues” shows how out of touch this person is.

  17. Colin Morris says:

    The first “In A Flash” message that hasn’t made me angry at Lefton for wasting my five minutes. The May 4th reflection is valuable. He’s right — I think about the significance of May 4th and the lessons it has to offer, but as for emotional or personal connection, I’ve got nil.

    Act I of the message is a different story. I believe he’s being stern with the best of intentions –preaching safety– but I couldn’t help feeling threatened.

    Oh well, I couldn’t attend if I wanted to. Meh.

  18. Colin Morris says:

    Bob Conrad reminded me that I wanted to make a joke about the lame reference to “Hill Street Blues.” I was trying to decide whether to go the sardonic irony route or just snipe at him for being outdated, but then I realized I have no idea what “Hill Street Blues” is.

    I *also* had the observation that the lack of salutation was a bit cold, but I didn’t know what to compare it to because my memory of the last “In A Flash” I finished is foggy.

  19. Bill Sledzik says:

    My congrats, Colin. You may be the only person who made it to the May 4 portion of the message, which runs 1,200-plus words (even makes me look terse!).

    I’ll admit that the message comes off like a lecture from Dad to the kids, but at this point I’m not sure what else he could do. I recall, though, when student unrest hit my campus in the early 70s, the president hit the streets and mixed it up with the students. He talked to them, trying to keep things calm.

    Of course, the prez was sympathetic to the anti-war movement of the time. It’s a little hard to muster that kind of support for binge drinking and hooliganism. And it’s a little late for a KSU official to hit the streets.

    I’m reminded of what my crisis communication guest speaker said in class on Monday: “Tell it. Tell it first. Tell it all.” You gotta get out ahead of these things, and we did not.

  20. Ben Brugler says:

    Bill-

    Glad you posted this. I’m with you on this – there really was nothing he could have done in this case. However, given that, why not just write a shorter note – or list the things that WON’T get you arrested. That would’ve been a shorter list.

    At any rate, it’s too bad this buries May 4, which, given the seriousness of what we’re commemorating, has no business being lumped into the same letter with this embarrasing incident.

    -Ben Brugler

  21. Brittany Thoma says:

    You’re right, Bill. Lefton wanted to take the Dad role in his message. But where was “Dad” when thousands of his “children” needed to know he cared? Oh that’s right, he was pissed they wanted a statement for the paper. I keep shaking my head every time I think about our president, the face of our university, saying he had no comment! Ah! What a nightmare.

    Thank you for this post. It was much needed. My PR suggestions for KSU were the ones you named in the post. I guess that means I paid attention in class, huh?

  22. Hi Bill, thanks for posting President Lefton’s e-mail message. While the crisis response (or lack of response) failed, I think that this e-mail is well done.

    First, Lefton personalized the note and took the proper “voice/tone.” The president of a university is a “father figure” or at least person of authority, who is looked at by various consituencies inside and outside the school as this kind of figure. In contrast to the “no comment,” the message here reads as sincere.

    Second, there is no way Lefton could have avoided discussing the riots last weekend in this message and the tie to May 4, which he correctly notes people are making whether it is a good analogy or not. He rightly acknowledges the role of May 4 in the local community, which is a much different outlook than KSU officials took in the past.

    I don’t see anything wrong with the Hill Street Blues reference. Like so many other phrases and sayings, it is part of the American vernacular. Using it in the e-mail message simply reinforces the point.

    And finally, I don’t see a problem with a long e-mail message when the content/message justifies the length. In fact, I think it’s kind of sad that 1,200 words seems to long for someone to get through. But, the whole discussion of why people don’t read or won’t read something they can’t scroll through in 15 seconds isn’t one that needs debated here.

    As a Kent State alum, I’m happy that Lefton addressed the situation. From an internal communications standpoint, I think the e-mail was nicely done.

  23. […] bookmarks tagged aloof Bad Craziness: How Kent State Failed ‘Crisis 101… saved by 2 others     stardoctor bookmarked on 05/01/09 | […]

  24. Bill Sledzik says:

    All good points, Bob. And while I agree with you about the attention span of online readers, it is the reality. The message was nicely done in content, voice and tone. But had I been the ghostwriter on that one, it would have been half the length (if that) — matching message to audience.

  25. Hey Bill! I would have shot for 750 (the magic number for most op-eds), but I don’t expect most writers to be as good as us…ha, ha.

    Still, it pains me deeply that the “audience” here (Kent students, faculty, staff, etc.) isn’t willing to read more. And, I’d bet you all the money in my wallet right now that if it were 600 words, someone would have still complained about it being too wordy!

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      So true. That 750 is about average for posts on this blog, and I’m guessing lots of folks don’t get through it. Maybe our administration will have to learn the haiku of Twitter. That would reduce the president’s message to: Don’t want to see your butts in the paddywagon this weekend, kids. So let’s be careful out there, OK? Damn, I hope it rains.

      Some interesting thoughts about our lack of concentration here. When a friend tweeted this link last week, she was asked by another tweep to please put the essence of the article into a Twitter message because the piece is soooooo long. It’s about 2,000 words.

  26. Bill Koch says:

    Bill, you hit the nail on the head when you identified the top communications professional coming from a marketing background. Marketers don’t like, don’t understand and have no clue how to respond to crisis situations. What makes it worse is that many universities, even in light of the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois, still don’t get it. Kent, Akron and Oberlin all filled senior “university relations” positions in the last two years with former “university relations” professionals from other academic institutions. Many claim to be interested in hiring PR professionals from outside academia, but that rarely happens. It’s a closed club, and seasoned PR pros who would demand that “seat at the table” will continue to be rejected.

    Until that mindset changes, I’m afraid you’re destined to get many more situations you can use as discussion topics in the PR Case Studies class. As a former professional contributor to that class – I guess that’s not all bad!!

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Nice to hear from you, old buddy. And boy, could we have used some of your wisdom here last week. But I doubt they would have listened.

      BTW, we miss your contributions in class, to be sure, but it’s funny how all the “new wave” practitioners are embracing transparency and 2-way communication. It’s what you and I were preaching back before PR ever discovered the Web! To bad the youngsters never had the benefit of prreporter!

      Here’s one piece of potential fallout from the riots. Would a quick and confident response have changed it? We’ll never know.

  27. Bill Koch says:

    Can’t you just hear Pat Jackson snarling right now as he says: “Don’t you get it?!?!?!?! It’s all about the relationships!!!!!”

    Even if they do lose a few incoming freshmen, it’s doubtful that will bring any fundamental change in the way approach open and honest communications from the top. It’s too bad, because that “reservoir of goodwill” you and I preached about alongside good Doctor Jackson would go a long way in helping the institution these days.

    Keep up the good work!

  28. Bill Sledzik says:

    From today’s Daily Kent Stater. Draw your own conclusions.

  29. Keith Price says:

    Bill — From an outsider’s perspective — and from someone who has worked in both journalism and PR — the reason this made such big national news is that it was at Kent State.

    Kent is known for one thing — May 4, 1970 — and until the university stops making note of the day, nobody will forget it. Most people under the age of 30…including prospective students…wouldn’t even know if happened if it wasn’t brought up every year.

    A riot in Kent that resulted in police shooting at students….even though it was rubber bullets….what 50-60 year old editor (they remember 1970) wouldn’t make the connection quickly and run with an interesting story.

    Once Kent State starts treating May 4 no differently than May 3 or May 5, and does so for a decade or so, people will bring 1970 up every single time something bad happens there.

  30. Bill Sledzik says:

    I won’t argue with your point, Keith. It is what it is.

    But Kent State simply can’t set May 4th aside. May 4th is part of the university’s legacy, and some argue one of the watershed events of the 20th Century. (Read Nixon’s memoirs on that one.) It certainly puts us on every editors’ radar screen, but I’m afraid it’s something we’ll live with until all of us who were around at the time are dead and buried.

    But I’m not willing to let management off the hook, as they were not victims of circumstance. Rather they were victims of their own inaction. Yeah, the students were a bunch of hooligans. But the rest of the student body — and their families — deserved a better response from the folks in charge.

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