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Media and Crisis Management

Dealing Calmly with National Bad Publicity

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Dealing Calmly with National Bad PublicityCrisis Response

In 2005 just about every initial news media report on student Nathaniel Heatwole sneaking box cutters and other banned articles aboard airliners mentioned his school – Guilford College. NBC Today’s lead story from Katie Couric began with the words “Guilford College, North Carolina, student Nathaniel Heatwole.” The college estimated its name came up almost 300 times in those initial October stories.

That is white-hot publicity and not what a respected institution seeks.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked with the college previously, but had no direct role in this matter.)

Stories frequently referred to Guilford’s Quaker history of condoning “civil disobedience” (which Heatwole claimed his actions had been), leaving the unspoken implication that the college’s philosophy indirectly endorses an action like Heatwole’s.

So, what’s an institution to do in this case? Hold news conferences decrying Heatwole’s intentional security breach? Throw Heatwole off campus? Call the national media to complain they are misrepresenting the college? Buy full page ads detailing Guilford’s admirable history? Send President Kent Chabotar on talk show rounds to explain the Quaker philosophy, disavow Heatwole, and vow Guilford’s innocence?

Nope. Guilford College did something almost counter-intuitive when controversy swirls about you. It did not overreact. The school met with the media on a limited basis saying it does not endorse law-breaking, is cooperating with the FBI, and is investigating on its own. The college modulated media access to the campus and students. It scrutinized Heatwole while simultaneously protecting his constitutional and campus rights (they allowed him to return) and also remaining neutral on his culpability. The college followed a measured approach to each development without “going nuclear.” Guilford kept its profile low.

I am an action-oriented crisis manager because failure to act quickly and decisively gets companies and institutions in far more trouble than almost anything else. Therefore, I admire Guilford’s restraint. The school’s moderation kept it from becoming a material part of the Heatwole story. Media references focused mostly on whether the student went too far or whether he did the country a favor. To wit:

Wall Street Journal editorial – “Mr. Heatwole’s crime wasn’t trivial; its consequences were costly and inconvenient. But it’s better to find out about security lapses this way than the way we did on September 11.”

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts – “…authorities haven’t much choice but to prosecute him. They can’t appear to encourage or condone a breach of security, even one with a laudable purpose. (Nevertheless) I’d be less than candid if I didn’t admit that his alleged act strikes me as less a crime than a public service.”

While the public stance stayed low-key, much internal communications was churning according to college relations director Ty Buckner. (A significant strategy since internal communication can be as important as external.) Inside steps included:

• A coordinated response to hundreds of e-mail messages and phone calls.

• Addressing needs of Heatwole’s residence hall roommate and student staff of the college radio station where he was an occasional disc jockey.

• Informing the campus community and college trustees of the developing situation through website, voicemail and e-mail, including a statement on the situation by the president.

• An op-ed piece written by the president not just for local newspapers, but for distribution to other constituents including alumni returning to campus for homecoming.

Although President Kent Chabotar was out of town at a conference when the news broke, he convened an action team including Vice President for Enrollment and Campus Life (initial spokesperson), Dean for Campus Life (later spokesperson), Associate Dean for Campus Life, Associate Academic Dean, Director of Public Safety, Director of College Relations, Marketing and Special Events Coordinator and College Counsel.

Buckner said tough challenges included preventing faculty or staff from inadvertently providing more student information than permitted, corralling reporters within designated campus areas, and answering emails hostile to Heatwole’s return to campus.

I believe Guilford College maintained its cool throughout a situation that would panic many an organization.

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