Occupy Colleges and Student Walkouts: Takeaways for Media Relations Professionals

Even as the AAUP endorsed Occupy Wall Street this week, citing the increased financial pressures on college students and the lack of job security for many adjunct and part-time faculty, students at institutions across the US have been organizing walkout days in support of the movement.

Because of the public nature of the movement and the extent to which social media have been used to organize student walkouts and raise awareness of the movement, we turned this week to media relations and crisis communications expert Cindy Lawson, assistant to the chancellor for marketing and communications at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. We asked Lawson for practical tips on how media relations professionals in higher education can prepare for and respond to student walkouts.

AI. Cindy, thank you for joining us again. In looking at student walkouts such as those that are related to the Occupy Wall Street movement, what do media relations professionals need to be most mindful of, going forward?

Lawson. With all the social media tools at our disposal, there is really no reason why campus administrators should not be aware of a potential student walkout, including the issues that are causing the walkout in the first place. Not only is it critically important to monitor what is being said about your own institution on traditional news sites; it is even more important to monitor what is being said on social media, blogs, and online forums. Similarly, it is important to monitor what is being said about other higher education institutions as well, because an issue surfacing or a walkout being planned at one institution may very well occur at your own institution. At UNCW, we are constantly monitoring various websites, and as such, we were watching the emerging discussion about potential walkouts on college campuses across the United States early Wednesday, October 5. By mid-morning, I had alerted our senior officers, and I continued to update them as other institutions' students, including UNC-institution students, began discussing the possibility of organizing walkouts at their respective campuses. Monitoring issues as they begin to develop allows an institution the opportunity to engage in proactive discussions about those emerging issues, to determine how serious those issues are, and to consider whether a response from the university is warranted.

AI. Can you tell us more about the monitoring you do on a regular basis, and offer examples of effective monitoring for your peers at other institutions? Specifically,  how can media relations professionals best monitor social media and other online networks?

Lawson. There are a number of good sites that any institution can use to monitor emerging issues across the social media spectrum.  Here are some that we use on a regularly basis:

AI. Cindy, what are several key considerations for communicating with campus constituencies and with the public, if and when something like this occurs?

Lawson.  Three action steps readily come to mind.

1. Proactively control your message. By monitoring blogs, forums, and social media, as well as establishing "alerts" from various traditional media sources, you will be able to determine the issues and concerns that are beginning to be raised about your institution. In doing so, you can determine how serious the issue is (volume of people weighing in on a particular issue, for example), whether a university response is really warranted (privacy laws or a criminal investigation might prevent you from responding, for example), and if so, what the content of the communiqué should be.

2. Communicate directly with your target audiences and constituent groups. Do not depend on either traditional media or social media outlets to convey your message for you. Communicate directly with your constituent groups by using your website, social media sites, email data bases, and conventional mail lists. Remember that your key audiences are not simply your faculty, staff and students; they are also your parents, board members, legislators, donors, vendors, alumni, and local community business leaders. Communicate your institution's position directly to them and/or describe the action steps you are taking to address or respond to the crisis/issue at hand.

(3) Communicate in a timely fashion. Determining the best time to respond is not always an easy decision to make; there are always so many factors to weigh. But from my experience, an early response frequently goes a long way in preventing a problem from becoming an issue in the first place, or an issue from becoming a crisis. In addition, the very act of responding sends a clear message that the institution is aware of an issue and is engaged in addressing it head-on.  It implies that the institution is "in control." It's also important to remember that not every issue warrants a response, but failure to respond to critical issues may cause some to perceive the institution as unknowledgeable, not caring, covering up or even taking an adversarial position with respect to a particular issue.

AI. Who has handled communications around the movement really well, and what can be learned from them?

Lawson. I have to admit that I really haven't seen institutions respond much, either to the Occupy Wall Street Movement or to the Occupy Colleges movement. Only a few have really addressed this issue, but with AAUP taking a position, we are likely to see others follow suit. That said -- and meanwhile -- I think the following is awesome! One organization in the corporate sector has quickly taken a position: to support the movement. Ben and Jerry's released a statement on their website, in which they acknowledged the key issues in the movement that were fundamentally important to them. The Board obviously discussed the issues surrounding the Occupy Wall Street Movement in depth before making a statement (note the collective "we" throughout their statement). And they even provided a link to the names of their board members, thereby indicating that each board member was taking an individual stand about these issues. They did not simply hide behind the corporate name by issuing a "statement from the headquarters of Ben & Jerry."

Whether you agree with the Board of Directors' statement or not is not what's important here, although I feel certain that most, if not all of higher education, would agree with their statement. Rather, B&J used the tools it had available to reach its customers about its position on the Occupy Wall Street issue. It would be interesting to know what impact their statement has had, or will have, on Ben & Jerry's bottom line.