Reputation management, when done well, has always been an active enterprise. Activity is obvious during the thick of a crisis, but it takes ongoing action to be ready before a situation swells into a full-blown emergency. M Booth believes that reputation management requires ongoing context on the threats that may be lurking around the next corner. This is why we’re dedicating a series of blog posts featuring interviews with some of our strategic partners who span a variety of disciplines and industries. This series is intended to be your lookout post to help you determine where you stand against the latest issues/crisis management thinking or best-practices.
Our first interview is with Bill Mahon, who spent decades overseeing the communications department at Penn State University. I’m proud to have called Bill a client and even more excited that he’s one of our strategic partners at M Booth, where he can lend ample experience on almost any issue or crisis that could threaten a university’s reputation. (As we are finalizing this piece, an admissions scandal is dominating news and several high-profile universities are implicated.) Here, Bill and I chat on the topic of university crises and the importance of reputation readiness.
J.D.: Bill, it seems that universities don’t focus on crisis preparedness as much as corporations or brands. Do you agree? And why is that the case?
MAHON: Generally, universities feel they don’t need to do it. Strong higher-ed institutions have intense loyalty from alumni, students and the general public. They have employees who believe so strongly about what they are doing that they donate millions of dollars a year for student scholarships and other things that make it a better place. I don’t think any of us spend much time thinking that a major crisis could turn an entire university upside down. These institutions often flounder when a crisis hits because they haven’t invested enough time, brainpower and resources into comprehensive crisis planning and preparation.
J.D.: Many corporations work very hard to maintain a capability to centralize the flow of information, so that they can communicate with one voice. Don’t universities try to do this?
MAHON: That’s so hard to do at a university, especially large ones. I had about 50 direct reports in my office, and I once counted more than 400 people who could be considered communicators across the university – working directly for academic deans, satellite campuses, athletics and more. They all care deeply about the university. And when a crisis hits, they all want to defend the place they love. It can result in a very inefficient system.
J.D.: The challenge, even with plenty of on-campus resources, is that communications leads don’t have the objectivity required and lack external perspective. Did you find that to be the case?
MAHON: Yes. And even with all the resources we had, none of us had been through a major crisis involving criminal activity like a former assistant football coach attacking children. Plus, the internal PR staff is often kept in the dark at the beginning of a problem, but still under enormous pressure to clean up a media mess that oftentimes just can’t be cleaned up. Staying focused on the future of the institution can help you outride the evolving parts of the crisis you can’t anticipate or change. When I taught PR classes at Penn State, I used to advise students what a former boss taught me: PR is best served in its role as the guardrail at the top of the cliff. Not the ambulance at the bottom.
J.D.: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see universities making at the beginning of a crisis?
MAHON: In my experience, it’s leaving PR out of the loop. If administrators are aware that a problem might become a crisis, PR needs to get involved – and before the first reporter calls. When you’re unprepared, you’re not going to be as effective. Another dynamic to keep in mind is to keep doing what you have always done best. Even during the height of media attention and public anger over the Sandusky case, Penn State’s reputation remained strong, according to public opinion polls taken shortly after the headlines hit and two months later. Applications to Penn State and enrollment continued to climb. Paid memberships to the alumni association rose and fund-raising increased.
I also think that it’s helpful for a university – especially at the beginning – to try and separate the crisis from the institution. You can’t take attacks on the university personally. You need to stay calm and not overreact. Of course, that’s easier said than done because people have a special connection with a university. You may not see that with a car or mobile-phone company.
…when I think back to when the Penn State crisis hit, I felt like someone was grabbing me, throwing me into the back of a van blindfolded, and yelling orders at me at gunpoint in a foreign language.
J.D.: Any final pearls of advice from your personal experience?
MAHON: Not to be overly dramatic … but when I think back to when the Penn State crisis hit, I felt like someone was grabbing me, throwing me into the back of a van blindfolded, and yelling orders at me at gunpoint in a foreign language. You’re not in charge anymore. Dozens of board members are suddenly micromanaging the day to day operations of the institution. The governor is walking unannounced into press conferences and stepping to the podium when he never did that before. “Insiders” are being quoted anonymously by news media saying things the communications staff is not aware of or even in contradiction to what you have been instructed to say. Penn State’s board leadership officially changed three times in 14 months and there were other changes behind the scenes. You and your staff and dozens of other school employees you need to work with suddenly have university-appointed attorneys, are being grilled by a room full of state investigators and testifying at criminal and civil trials for years to come. Employees you have sought information and counsel from for years suddenly won’t talk frankly because they are afraid of the shoes yet to drop. And every, single email you will write or receive for the next half dozen years is under court order to not be deleted because it may be used as evidence in a criminal or civil trial.
My best advice is stay true to what you and the communications staff have always done to successfully support the institution: Engage alumni, promote research, generate applications and support fund-raising efforts. Do that and an institution that entered a crisis in good shape will emerge in good shape.
M Booth is passionate about issues/crisis management. We want to help you keep pace with the latest industry trends and viewpoints on the topic. Stay tuned for future POVs and strategic-partner interviews!