Don’t Call it a Scandal

December 2, 2019

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By Gail F. Baker

This post is the second in a series from the Association of Chief Academic Officers.

The day starts like any other. Need to handle a complicated personnel issue, post an enrollment update, and answer budget questions. As you prepare to leave for a meeting, there’s a call from university communications. A reporter wants a comment about some “crisis” on campus.

Several familiar scenarios run through your head. Is it a student protest, charges from a disgruntled former employee, the controversial speaker invited to campus?

Your initial thought is “No big deal; just a typical crisis.” After all, universities are more intricate than Fortune 500 companies (and more like 500 smaller companies all working under the same banner). The occasional crisis is inevitable. You can handle this and still make your meeting. That’s just part of the job.

But as the communications team explains what the reporter wants to discuss, you realize something is amiss. This issue is infinitely more troublesome, and delicate. A single misstep could cost the university a price it simply can’t afford. This isn’t a routine collegiate crisis; your previously routine day has come to a screeching halt. You and your institution are in the whirling vortex of a scandal.

There are some key distinctions between a crisis and a scandal that once understood, can help guide your response.

A crisis can befall any university. We have preciously limited control over natural disasters or random acts of violence. With a crisis, you start with public sympathy—or at least, not animosity.

Scandals are different. While they share the same basic DNA, scandals are more treacherous and complex. A wrong move here could forever be etched into the university’s identity. Scandals compromise your institution’s morality and integrity.

Scandals are about your institution’s character. Scandals corrode your institution’s reputation. And they can burn it to the ground.

Scandals are even more insidious because they come with implied intent.

You knew.

You knew and you ignored.

You knew and covered up.

Oh, you didn’t know? Well, then you should have known.

Why didn’t you know? Isn’t it your job to know?

Public empathy isn’t even an option—public acrimony is waiting in its place…and the reporter is waiting for your response.

As provost, what is your role during a scandal? Upon whom do you depend? It doesn’t matter the origin or the outcome; every single campus scandal somehow impacts the academic enterprise. There are no walls. Whether the problem originates in athletics or advancement—the tentacles of the scandal reach into the institution’s reputation, and by extension—to the desk of the chief academic officer.

Having served as a flagship university lead campus communications officer, I have managed my fair share of scandals. While each is distinctive, there are basic essential actions to consider or avoid.

Keep in mind, a crisis is not always a scandal but a scandal is always a crisis.

Critical actions in the face of a scandal

Assemble the right team. Make sure you are a part of the conversation, and consistently remind the group that academics will be impacted by how the scandal is managed.

Review institutional core values. While a full understanding of the core values is important, it is also important to gather information quickly and adapt when needed.

Determine the facts. What is known? How fast can you get new information? The distance between what you know and what you don’t is the feeding ground of disaster. Close that gap. When facts are known, be prepared to take swift action.

Decide media strategy and who will serve as spokesperson. There are times when the communications professionals are best to speak. Some situations will require the voice of other campus leaders. Determine who and prepare that person with facts.

Recognize the power and speed of social media. This is an unrelenting and insatiable force that will feed on this story until the issue is resolved—one way or the other.

Remember that information flows from the inside out. Don’t put anything out there until it is known and understood in here. But timing is key—be proactive getting information out to the appropriate stakeholders, both internal and external.

Keep faculty informed. Natural and credible ambassadors, faculty possess myriad connections that can be leveraged in explaining and extending the situation. They will be asked for their opinion—by students, neighbors, peers and possibly, the press. It’s a good idea to arm them with the facts as they shape their viewpoints.

Maintain message discipline and consistency. As with a professional orchestra, the most compelling effort is one that is done in well-executed harmony. Encourage everyone to stick to the script.

Recognize that academic jargon is meaningless to most. The public doesn’t know (or care) that there is a difference between an adjunct and a tenured professor.

Stand on your record. You have assumingly built up a reservoir of good will with key constituents. Now is the time to use it.

Common mistakes in handling a scandal

Don’t call it a scandal. While the press and others might refer to the situation as a scandal, internally, you should select language that is less incriminating. Label it an event, a situation, an investigation. This is not a denial that something has happened. Instead, it is a rejection of external framing.

Don’t panic. Calm heads guide good decisions. While your control is limited, it is not nonexistent. Recognize that you have assets at your disposal—facts, corrective actions, clear actions.

Avoid making definitive statements that you will need to walk back later. It is appropriate to say “at this time, we don’t know” or “we are investigating,” when such is the case. As CAOs, we believe we should know everything and are obligated to voice it. Otherwise, we might look clueless. It’s ok. Better to feel a bit awkward now than drown in regret later.

Don’t ignore precedent. The reputation of your college or university was built over time, and the decisions of past administrators were done, hopefully, for a reason. Don’t be jarring in your pronouncements unless this is absolutely your intent. Likewise, if some other institution has faced a similar incident, don’t be afraid to see how they handled it and the ramifications of their decisions.

Don’t take sides. This doesn’t mean you make some wishy-washy response that just sounds evasive and insipid. It is entirely possible that your previously exemplary employee might have done something untoward. Siding with them before you have all the facts will make you look disingenuous.

Don’t go into full-bunker mode. Colleges and universities are beacons of light, not dungeons of darkness. Act quickly and decisively, with the mantra that getting the facts out is better than them being dug out of a seemingly petulant organization. Further, there’s communication theorist Paul Watzawick’s warning, “you cannot not communicate.” Silence is its own message. So even if there is nothing new to report, report that, and avoid creating rumors in the vacuum of no information.

Don’t assume the scandal is over (just because you want it to be). Be ready when people remember anniversaries; tie your scandal to others; and revive it later, e.g., “The provost is stepping down in June. You might recall that during her tenure, there was a scandal involving….”

While this list is not comprehensive, it is a start. You may never have to manage a scandal in your role as CAO. But, should you find yourself face-to-face with an unfolding scandal, this list hopefully will provide you some guidelines to consider and remind you that you (and your university) can survive the unimaginable.

ACAOacaologo aims to enhance the effectiveness of CAOs by providing networking and professional development opportunities and engaging members in academic affairs issues that cut across the diversity of higher education institutions and missions.

If you have any questions or comments about this blog post, please contact us.

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