Managing the public relations efforts after a high profile sexual violence allegation is probably one of the most challenging processes a communications team can go through. It’s not just the immediate flurry of media attention and tough questions, it’s the university’s reputation on the line.
As these USA Today op eds rightly note, university’s internal conduct processes, the victim’s willingness to press forward with criminal charges, and federal law all further complicate an already emotionally-charged situation.
Last month, the Obama Administration’s White House Task Force on Sexual Violence on College Campuses issued a report on sexual violence; it included a series of recommendations and policy changes aimed at making universities more transparent when addressing sexual violence on their campuses.
This is a great step forward towards addressing what is considered the most underreported crime in the United States.
If you’re an administrator at a university – large or small, public or private – you’ve got a lot to consider, not the least of which is the public perception of how your university is responding.
A few tips:
Who speaks publicly is just as important as what they say: When a sexual assault story makes its way to a newsroom, there’s a good chance the incident was mishandled somewhere along the way. Choose your spokesperson to be sensitive to the situation, knowledgeable about policy and the law, but most importantly, empathetic.
Good policies and procedures are the best PR strategy: Student affairs staff, including counselors and public safety, will be working hard to add trainings, strengthen policies and put in place procedures to address whatever was missing. Not only is that in the best interest of your students, actually demonstrating that you’re proactive is the best PR messaging in the world.
Know the difference between the Clery Act and Title IX: Most student affairs and public safety professionals are well versed in these two federal laws. The Jean Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, or Clery Act, largely deals with timely reporting, while Title IX addresses the broader culture on campus. The Department of Education may chose to launch an investigation of your Clery reporting, or the Office of Civil Rights within the Department of Education may launch a Title IX investigation. Understanding this distinction will be crucial as you navigate through countless internal meetings, as well as answer the same questions from reporters who don’t know the distinction themselves. The White House’s new website, notalone.gov, has some helpful information.
Spend quality time with your General Counsel: What you want to say from a good PR standpoint will usually scare the lawyers. It’s a fact. There are times you have to weigh the cost to the school’s overall reputation against the risk of pending lawsuits. Both are pretty important. Put in the extra time with your counsel to come up with responses that you both are comfortable with.
Wait for the other shoe/When it rains it pours: Don’t be surprised when something else comes out about the situation after you think it’s been dealt with. And as you probably know by now, crises love to come in pairs or more. It’s Murphy’s Law something else will also come along.
Remember all your stakeholders: The media’s calling, but you have a student body, faculty, staff, alumni, donors, a board of trustees, elected officials and community members to reach out to. Don’t forget to include specific outreach to these groups in your communications planning.
These situations are really, really hard for all players involved. They often are compounded by a he-said/she-said version of events, memories made fuzzy by alcohol, and a system that relies heavily on a victim to recount over and over what has happened to her (or him.) After the initial story subsides, there’s a good chance the incident will be referenced in news stories down the road, especially if you’re the subject of an investigation by the DOE.
Don’t despair. Surround yourself with smart, knowledgeable people from around the university, or an outside PR resource, and listen to them. Work collaboratively on a response that is best for the university but at the end of the day is also best for the students.
Kate Venne is the Director of Public Relations at Capstone National Partners. If you’re interested in media training, contact Kate to find out more.
The views in this blog post represent the viewpoints of individual team members, not Capstone National Partners as a whole.