When Student Behavior Becomes a Media Crisis: Mitigation and Recovery

Student with backpack

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.

AI. Cindy, what can a college or university do to mitigate a perceived debacle related to student conduct?

Lawson. Like any other public relations crisis, one must first ask, “What could have been done to prevent, or mitigate, this in the first place?”

First of all, it goes without saying that each college or university should have a code of conduct that clearly articulates the behavior expected of its students. Along with the code of conduct should be processes for judging and appealing any violations and certainly appropriate punishments for each different type of violations. Enforcement is a must, because without enforcement, the expectations are meaningless.

Beyond this, a college or university needs to prepare for media crises of this kind by:

  • Promoting the positive achievements of its students
  • Establishing positive relationships between administrative leaders and student leaders

A college/university constantly needs to be about the business of promoting the achievements of its students:

  • Research endeavors (undergraduate or graduate)
  • Community outreach activities
  • Mentoring and tutoring activities
  • Academic accomplishments
  • Acts of heroism, etc.

This type of promotion should not be limited to press releases, but should include a variety of communication mechanisms, including the college/university website, social media outlets, listservs, etc. Doing so builds a cache of good will — or political capital, if you will — not only for the student body, but also for the entire college/university. As such, when negative student conduct is exploited by the media, that conduct will be perceived in its proper perspective — as an anomaly and not as something that is systemic throughout the entire university.

Next, it’s critically important that the entire administrative leadership — and not just the vice president/chancellor of student affairs — develops and fosters good relationships with elected student leaders, Panhellenic leaders, influential student groups, etc. Without established relationships, it’s somewhat misguided to think that students will respond appropriately to requests for changes in their behavior. Indeed, they may not perceive their behavior as inappropriate, as was the case when students held “ghetto” parties all over the United States a number of years ago. In that case, those universities that used that inappropriate behavior as a “teachable moment” were able to effectively minimize the kind of negative media coverage that was seen by those institutions that tried various other tactics, ranging from punishment to ignoring the behavior altogether.

AI. Cindy, could you offer examples of how administrative leaders can form positive relationships with student leaders?

Student participation on boards and committees, including search committees, is one way to develop relationships. Another way is to regularly meet with various student groups as a means for soliciting their feedback and concerns about important university issues. One university where I worked encouraged senior administrators to entertain students in their homes every couple of weeks; funds were provided to support these activities. At another institution, student leaders or influential student groups frequently were invited to have dinner or attend a barbecue at the president’s home.
AI. What strikes me as especially of note in your suggestion is that developing these kinds of relationships not only prepares the way for effective communication with the student body in the case of a crisis, but also invites students to look at themselves, their behavior, and their relationship with their institution differently. Given opportunities to provide meaningful input on issues of importance to the institution, they become contributors to the institution rather than merely consumers.

But looking forward, suppose an incident has occurred. How should the institution’s leaders communicate with the student body to promote behavioral change?

Lawson. If the misbehavior is, in fact, an anomaly — and most are — then sending a letter to the entire student body may reinforce the perception that the misbehavior is actually systemic. Otherwise, what is the reason for sending the letter to everyone? Working with student leaders and student groups by hosting forums, brown bag discussions, and even asking faculty to discuss the issues in their respective classrooms may be a better approach. Topics for discussion might include specific behavioral issues, the consequences of those behaviors, the impressions those behaviors may have on outsiders, the resulting reputation those behaviors may cause not only on the individuals involved, but also on the entire student body and the college/university itself, etc. Again, take advantage of these behavior opportunities by leveraging them as teachable moments with your students.

AI. Another mitigation question: If the media has jumped on the incident, what are the right ways for the institution to communicate with the media?

Lawson. Depending on the misbehavior, it may be appropriate to publicly state what steps the university is taking to help ensure a particular type of misbehavior doesn’t happen again.  Of course, there is nothing to say that a particular behavior won’t occur again, but putting some obstacles and processes in place may help communicate that the administration is not ignoring or tolerating the misbehavior.

AI. Is there advice you would offer related to tone or approach? What should an institution definitely not do, in communicating with the media on a student behavior issue?

Lawson. Privacy laws certainly prohibit what can be communicated, such as the names of violators, specific details about the violations, the specific appeals process regarding a particular violation, or the actions taken in response to those violations. That said, however, a university may want to address broader violation issues.

For example, at one institution where I worked, each September I could expect media coverage of one or more hazing incidents. One year, the hazing incident was so egregious that the university publicly announced it was instituting more severe punishments for hazing violations and that any staff or student leaders who turned a “blind eye” to hazing activities would be removed from their responsibilities going forward.

Then the university did exactly what they said they were going to do. The students and staff clearly knew what was expected of them and what the university would do, and in fact, did do the next fall when the next hazing incident surfaced. After that, there were no hazing incidents in subsequent fall semesters, and the public perception was that this particular type of student misbehavior had seriously been addressed by the university administration.

Finally, when student misbehavior has reached a critical point where the perception may be that the misbehavior is, in fact, systemic, then it’s also time to redouble your efforts in promoting the good things students are doing at your university. Do it often. Do it consistently. And, most important, don’t stop doing it.