Avoiding a Media Relations Crisis: Lessons Learned from Laramie County Community College

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After some initial controversy over FERPA and student privacy, a set of documents from Laramie County Community College were made public, prompting a media flurry and providing a cautionary case of how one college may have mishandled a response to the suicidal behaviors of a student while leading a 2008 class trip to Costa Rica. The incident raises several questions for institutions of higher education, including:

  • What training to provide for faculty and other trip leaders who are taking students abroad, so that trip leaders know how to respond in the event of an emergency and who to contact
  • How to manage communications with key campus audiences and with the media after the incident, so as to prevent or manage the type of media controversy seen in this case

We asked leading crisis communications expert Cindy Lawson (with the University of North Carolina Wilmington) to address that second question, and to identify what lessons other institutions can learn from these recent events.

Lessons Learned: Cindy Lawson’s Analysis

Cindy Lawson: “Students are colleges’ and universities’ top priority, and as such, these institutions always are concerned about (1) the safety of their students; and (2) the privacy of those students as guarded under FERPA. To be sure, names of students and other individuals always can be redacted for ‘privacy’ reasons from any document, just as they were in this case, but redaction doesn’t guarantee privacy. Indeed, colleges and universities get concerned, and rightfully so, that even with the names redacted, persistent reporters may be able to (and often do) connect the dots and figure out the names of one or more of these individuals.  Once they do, they often seek out, and discover, where these individuals live or work, in an attempt to interview other individuals involved for ‘the story’ — individuals who are under no obligation to maintain the same level of privacy. The reality is this: had the community college released this information and the student’s privacy was compromised, then they would have had to face criticism for being insensitive or possible litigation for breach of privacy. The bottom line is that I think the university took appropriate steps in asking a judge to rule on the issue before releasing the document.

“Now the community college finds itself in a dilemma — what to say, or not say, about this incident.  Clearly, there are issues about the incident itself, the investigation and subsequent recommendations, and, perhaps now, a perception of a cover-up for not releasing the document initially.  I realize that I likely don’t have all the facts, and as such, I am having to rely on media reports for information about this case.  Hindsight is great, but I would have recommended that the administration send a blast email to all faculty, staff and students, parents, donors, and friends of the community college, along with a press release (maybe even a press conference) immediately following the judge’s ruling and before the story broke by a single media outlet:

  • Explaining, once again, why the university did not want to release the document initially;
  • Acknowledging the ‘general’ findings and recommendations that resulted from the investigation; and most importantly,
  • Identifying and focusing on the steps (policies, procedures, training,  etc.) the university will be taking to adequately address the findings and recommendations that were identified.

“Had they done this, they would have been able to reduce the number of days in which the story ran (i.e. all media outlets get the story at the same time, and the story runs for a single or double media cycle), and they deliver their messages directly to the target audiences they want to reach without relying on media interpretation.  At this stage in the ‘crisis’ — after the fact — it’s critically important that LCCC not become defensive in its communications.  It needs to be transparent and proactive in discussing what it is doing to address the shortcomings that were identified.  It needs to focus the discussion on what steps are being taken, by communicating directly with its target audiences.  And, as hard as it will be, once these issues have been addressed with new policies, procedures, training, etc., that information needs to communicated once again with these target audiences and with the media.”

Key Takeaways

Lawson suggests these 5 practical takeaways for institutions who may at some point find themselves in a similar situation:

  • Make protecting your students’ privacy your first priority. When in doubt, seek a legal ruling (as LCCC did).
  • Communicate with your key target audiences first, then the media.
  • Don’t make the mistake of not communicating swiftly and openly. Lawson warns that this creates a “vacuum,” and that if you don’t communicate with the public, someone else will — likely the media, who may not (and probably will not) have all the facts.
  • Take the initiative to admit mistakes, whether errors in judgment, insufficient policies, inadequate training.
  • Communicate the specific steps your institution will take to address any shortcomings so that they do not happen a second time.