Leadership & Governance

For a Campus in Crisis, the President's Voice Is Key

Dave Dieter, The Huntsville Times, Landov

David B. Williams (above), president of the University of Alabama at Huntsville, heads to a news conference the day after a shooter's rampage killed three professors. The president of another university that had endured a similar tragedy offered this advice: Communicate, and connect with the campus.
February 16, 2010

After a gunman went on a shooting rampage at Northern Illinois University in 2008, John G. Peters knew what people wanted from him. He stepped out in front of crowds and lights and clicking cameras, and he spoke—relaying the facts, debunking rumors, and offering reassurance.

"People expected to hear from me," says Mr. Peters, the institution's president. He took his cues from Charles W. Steger, president of Virginia Tech, who became a voice for that university after the tragic shootings on its campus the previous year. "I didn't want to play that role," Mr. Peters said, "but I felt that I had to."

In times of tragedy, scandal, or shock, a college's communications strategy becomes a key factor in how an institution recovers—and the voice of the president is one of the most important parts of that plan.

Any crisis-communications strategy prepares an organization for the unthinkable. If there is anything that college leaders could draw from the unsettling story of Amy Bishop and the shootings she is accused of at the University of Alabama at Huntsville last week, it is that the unthinkable could happen to any institution at any time.

A Dearth of Crisis Planning

Experts on crisis planning and communication say that many colleges are woefully unprepared for the media onslaught and public-relations challenges that follow campus emergencies like the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, or other events, like the Duke University lacrosse scandal, that can put a campus at the center of the 24/7 news cyclone.

"It's estimated that 60 percent of all organizations have done little or nothing in the way of crisis management," says Melissa Gibson Hancox, associate professor of communication at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, who specializes in crisis communications. "As much as I want to say that all colleges should be engaged in crisis planning, a lot of them are not."

Without a crisis plan, responses can be panicked and rash, experts say. Ms. Gibson Hancox cites her own experience at Mercyhurst College in 2004, where she was chair of the department of communication. The college's president at the time, William P. Garvey, had been accused of sexual abuse, and the college's public-relations director had gotten wind that the local newspaper, the Erie Times-News, was preparing an article on the allegations.

The public-directions director responded by asking peers for advice on a listserv, Ms. Gibson Hancox says. Then "the college took public relations away from the public-relations department, and the president's private secretary ran around campus and removed the Erie Times-News from the newspaper stands," she says.

"That was their crisis plan," Ms. Gibson Hancox says. "It's laughable."

Planning, Then Adjusting the Plan

Crisis-planning experts say that every college should have a communications plan in place for the emergencies that are most likely to happen; then the college should adjust the details when an actual crisis occurs. That plan should include preparing materials, like possible talking points; designating a meeting space for representatives of the news media and the campus; and outlining who will be in charge of the communications strategy and who will talk for the university.

In a situation with the threat of litigation, an impulse might be to circle the wagons. But Ms. Gibson Hancox says that organizations like hospitals have found that open communication can actually decrease the likelihood of litigation.

Peter Mancusi, who specializes in crisis communications for the public-relations firm Weber Shandwick, says that he sees more colleges preparing crisis plans, much the way that corporations have.

Once a crisis strikes, an institution wants to be out in front of the news, releasing information, he says, not reacting to bits of information reporters dig up.

"It's the steady drip that does the most damage—just ask Toyota, ask Tiger Woods, ask John Edwards," he says. "Transparency is not just about being a good person and getting all the information out there. It's about protecting the institution."

The role of the campus president is important, Mr. Mancusi notes. "Constituencies—particularly the inside constituencies—want to see the man or woman in charge," Mr. Mancusi says. It may merely be symbolic, but "it's an important symbolic thing."

Being in the Spotlight

Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations at Virginia Tech, says that Mr. Steger is not naturally inclined to talk to the news media. But Mr. Hincker advised from the beginning of Virginia Tech's response to the 2007 tragedy on its campus that the president should be visible as the steady face of the university during a crisis, and he says Mr. Steger did not hesitate.

Time will tell how the University of Alabama at Huntsville is judged for its handling of the shootings that claimed three professors' lives last week and left three other people wounded. Although the university released some information early through communications officials, David B. Williams, the president, mostly avoided the news media initially, citing legal concerns and the continuing investigation. On Monday afternoon, three days after the shootings, he did his first formal interviews—a three-hour marathon that included 15 minutes with each local and national outlet, including The Chronicle.

At the event, Mr. Williams seemed surprised by the number of interviews he had to do in one sitting. And he could be heard remarking on the inappropriateness of his attire for television interviews—he wore a suit coat and cobalt-blue shirt, to match the school colors, with no tie.

Mr. Williams said that he was concentrating on internal communications, with faculty and staff members, and students. And for that, some have lauded him. Clarke Rountree, a professor of communication at Huntsville, said that Mr. Williams's speech at a service for the dead and injured hit all the right notes: "He was very good at expressing our feelings."

Mr. Hincker, Mr. Peters, and others stress that several complicated elements set the tragedy at Huntsville apart from the ones at Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech. The suspected shooter at Huntsville is an employee, not a student or an outsider—which may raise more concerns about litigation. And the suspected shooter is also still alive, facing charges of capital murder and attempted murder, with information about her past still dribbling out.

Mr. Peters says that he called Mr. Williams on Friday evening to offer encouragement and advice: to take a deep breath, and to communicate and connect with the campus, as Mr. Peters had to do at Northern Illinois two years ago.

"It was important for our students and faculty to see me and to talk to me, and for me to walk through the campus, to have conversations, to tell people to be strong, to hug each other, and to cry together," Mr. Peters says. "And that in turn gave me strength."

Robin Wilson contributed to this report.