5 ways to overcome a reputational crisis

After a crisis that led to a yearlong civil rights investigation, Lehigh University offers tips. Do the right thing. Marshal your staffers to help you respond. Listen to your critics. And bring donuts.

Editor’s note: This story is taken from Ragan’s distance-learning portal RaganTraining.com. The site contains hundreds of hours of case studies, video presentations, and interactive courses.

Oh, Lehigh University had seen viral stories before, as when a student dressed as a Teletubby broke into an apartment, raided the fridge, and dumped Chinese food into his “man purse.”

But until the college experienced a yearlong whirlwind of bad news and a federal civil rights investigation, it hadn’t really felt the trauma of full reputational crisis.

Holding to your principles and doing the right thing will help you recover your mojo in such a situation, says Jordan Reese, director of media relations at the top-40 research institution. Be yourself and tap your best people.

In a Ragan Training video titled ” Do the right thing: Preserving reputation through a year-long crisis ,” Reese tells how Lehigh marshaled its strengths and confidence in its mission to overcome an emergency that threatened to cause serious damage.

Lehigh’s playbook offers strategies not only for universities, but for other organizations that could face crises over employee behaviors that are beyond the institution’s control.

The crisis didn’t seem like much of a threat to Lehigh at first. It started in 2013 with a bar fight at which a student hurled a racial epithet, Reese says. But soon the college was caught up in protests and rancor.

“We have what we thought as going to be weeklong story with the bar fight,” Reese says. “And then it became a month-long story. And then it became six months. And then the investigation occurred, and do you know how long it takes the Department of Education to do an investigation?”

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, ” Do the right thing: Preserving reputation through a year-long crisis”

Students picketed the president’s house. Flyers were posted which used the N-word. These were intended as an anti-racism protest, but the janitor who found and tore down the materials didn’t know that.

A vandal egged and spray-painted racial insults on a multicultural residence, and a top student responded with a scathing speech about Lehigh at a founders day event. The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Huffington Post, as well as other media, pounced on the story.

Soon an alumnus anonymously complained to the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights division, launching an investigation, Reese said. Lehigh has found its way out of the briar patch, but along the way it learned a few lessons that can benefit any organization in crisis.

Successfully overcoming such a crisis has more to do with your organization’s character than your skills in slickly managing the news.

Here are some tips:

1. Find—and promote—what you’re already doing

When people ranging from strangers to your stakeholders question your commitment to diversity, let them know what you’re already doing. Find out how your organization is improving diversity and inclusion. How are you making changes?

“Luckily, you have people who are doing that,” Reese says. “You have people who believe in that.”

Lehigh realized it hadn’t told people about matters such as its comprehensive effort to recruit a diverse student body. Most students didn’t know about places such as the multicultural room where people of different backgrounds could meet, and didn’t know there was a summer program for students who were the first in their families to go to college.

Reese explains: “We just never bothered to tell anybody these things, or if we did, it was our Facebook followers, our Twitter followers, and you know who those are? Those are your alumni, your engaged alumni.”

2. Marshal your people

The best defense is really right under your nose: your people. “It’s the institution they’re angry with,” Reese says. “What better way to get out of this and have the people in the institution do the work for you?”

At a university, this means finding your topic experts and content experts, such as that art professor who is involved in community activism. This means listening to your internal and external critics as well.

Who can help you make a change? Recognize these people as resources, Reese says. Ask them, “What do we need to be doing? What are you hearing?”

3. Bring donuts

Make friends with important partners such as human resources. And by all means, bring donuts to your general counsel’s office.

“Do you know how tough it is to get them to talk to you?” Reese says. “Almost everything you do from here on out is going to have to have their OK.”

4. Recognize that everything is external

Every internal memo Lehigh sent out during its crisis was immediately forwarded to the press. Your audience includes the general public; speak accordingly.

“So we were not [just] speaking internally anymore,” Reese says. “We never really were.”

5. Document your values

Somewhere in a filing cabinet or deep in your computer is a document about your commitment to diversity. Share it with reporters—and your internal audiences.

“Somehow we had let students believe that we were not that interested in these issues,” Reese says. “We were, we were just telling the wrong people.”



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