Crisis Management: Duke Lacrosse Crisis – How the City Protected its Reputation: Crisis Response
“There but for the grace of God go I” reads the Proverb; and I suspect that since the Duke University lacrosse controversy, countless leaders of schools, communities, teams, and institutions wondered what they would do in a similar reputation threatening situation. They need look no further than the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau for inspiration.
When Associated Press first reported their energetic efforts to protect the city from being collateral damage I recognized the name of old acquaintance: PR veteran Rosemarie Kitchin. She was director of bureau media relations and joined equally experienced CEO Reyn Bowman to describe their uphill climb to protect Durham’s image. Bowman said nearly any reporter who tried to characterize the city got it grossly wrong at the beginning. Extremes, stereotypes and a warped impression of North Carolina filled stories. The bureau officials said it was mostly “ignorance”: no knowledge of the city. Into that maw of misperception the Durham CVB leaped.
Some of the errors they worked to fix: NC Central University (the bogus victim attended NCCC) was not comprised of mostly poor students and had national merit scholars and celebrated graduates. Duke students were not all white and rich. The current freshman class was 63% white and 37% minority. Forty percent attended Duke helped by student aid averaging $25,000 a year. Durham residents were not generally poor; the city had a strong middle and upper middle class and a history of success with black businesses and civil rights.
So how did the bureau execute it? Wherever the media gathered, Kitchin personally approached every reporter she could to give current information about the city including: 300 Great Things About Durham, 25 Misperceptions and the Realities Behind them, accolades, map, visitor guide for overall and background information, school scores, fact sheets, and ways to download images. The bureau posted the same information on its website and told all national media where to find it. Kitchin made rounds of TV satellite trucks, the courthouse, the district attorney’s office, Duke and NCCU looking for those she’d not yet met and given an information kit. She delivered bottled water and made an occasional food run for the media horde.
The staff monitored news coverage. Whenever they found a mistake, they’d try to locate the journalist responsible and provide the right information. Reyn Bowman said they were not trying to correct reporters as much as be fact givers who humanized Durham. They tracked Internet discussions and if one site got heatedly misguided, Bowman himself would occasionally join in to cool the online tempers and teach. Kitchin called their work “education.” Bowman said one reason they worked hard to knock down incorrect information was they didn’t want these inaccuracies to become the archival record of Durham. Bowman said research shows “negative information is 2.4 times more powerful than positive so you have to stop and protect your brand.”
Bowman and Kitchin said their efforts were an amplified version of what they routinely did, just more intense and compressed in time. They already had the positive information about the city and merely re-packaged it for the media kit. Likewise, they said they already had good communication channels with Duke and NCCU. Thus, they said, information flowed and partnerships continued.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau officials emphasized that the community itself was involved. They told how individuals with various organizations too were passing out information about Durham.
But did it work? A nationwide survey showed that positive opinions of the city improved over the previous eleven years. During the crucial period of the Duke scandal through April 20,2006, 5% of respondents said their image of the city had improved, 6% said it had declined, and 65% said their image of Durham remained the same.