When Student Behavior Becomes a Media Crisis: Mitigation and Recovery

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As one news source put it, Duke University "keeps getting in the news for all the wrong reasons." The barrage of negative media attention to what are in all probability isolated and exceptional incidents at the university (a recent alumnus detailing her intimate encounters with Duke athletes; an email from a Duke fraternity inviting female students to a Halloween party in crass terms; the shutting down of an outdoor student party) offers a cautionary tale about the "snowball effect" that an incident involving perceived student misconduct can have on media relations for an institution. Journalists and experts on media relations alike have suggested that since a rape allegation in 2006 against three Duke lacrosse players, the local media have been quick to perpetuate negative stereotypes of the Duke student (even though the lacrosse players were found not guilty).

What this case demonstrates is the importance of ongoing image management and reputation recovery after a media crisis related to student behavior. If an institution does not take prompt action after a crisis -- and indeed, proactive action prior to a crisis -- to build a more positive image, the negative image can persist for years, as the case of Duke illustrates.

This week, Academic Impressions interviewed leading crisis communications expert Cindy Lawson (with the University of North Carolina Wilmington) for her advice on this issue.


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