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Manage the Message - How to communicate appropriately during the phases of a crisis


By Stephen Northcutt


As a leader you hope you never have to address a sensational issue that becomes public, but incidents happen all the time and one of the leadership competencies we each need to work on is preparation for an unexpected, difficult event. By preparing in advance, we are more likely to respond with a measured response that is line with our ethics and image. At SANS.edu we teach the following six step process for computer security incident response and this can also be applied to public disruptive events:

  • Preparation
  • Identification
  • Containment
  • Eradication
  • Recovery
  • Lessons Learned

Preparation

On April 22, 2012, I attended the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges workshop for new college presidents. One of their suggestions was to have a prepared canned statement in case a disruptive event occurs; you do not want to be talking off the cuff. The example they used was Penn State President Graham Spanier who was subsequently fired. Apparently, the following quote turned toxic once more information became available, "With regard to the other presentments, I wish to say that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have my unconditional support. I have known and worked daily with Tim and Gary for more than 16 years. I have complete confidence in how they have handled the allegations about a former University employee."

Three points we need to be prepared to make in the event of a disruptive event:
  • We expect that we do not have all the facts at this point.
  • We are being diligent to investigate and gather information.
  • We intend to act in a manner that is consistent with our ethics, brand, policies and procedures.

Identification

While I was doing the research for this document, the story broke about Stacie Halas, a middle school teacher at Richard B. Haydock who had been an actor in adult videos before becoming a teacher in 2009. These videos were apparently found by students. When school officials investigated, they were unable to find any evidence, because the school had content sensors for Internet access. Other teachers were able to find evidence on their smart phones and showed administrators. The school system superintendent confirmed that he had seen a video, that it was Halas, and that she was placed on administrative leave.

Two points to be prepared to make during the identification stage:
  • Confirm that a disruptive event has occurred that impacts the organization and we are taking it seriously.
  • Firmly state an investigation has been started and that we expect that we do not have all the facts yet.
Fairly soon after an incident occurs, the college president should make contact with the board of trustees and make sure they know the two bullet points above. You can be a little bit more forthcoming with the board than the press, but only a little bit, and try to avoid speculative statements.


Containment

At Columbia University Teachers College, a rope noose such as the ones used to hang people was found hanging on professor Madonna G. Constantine's office door, propelling Columbia into the headlines. As things moved forward with an investigation, evidence began to accrue that she had engaged in plagiarism. She fought the charges and even filed a grievance against the college president, Susan Fuhrman. Constantine was fired and attempted multiple lawsuits whose outcomes so far have upheld Columbia's decision and effectively contained the incident. Current internet news on Ms. Constantine in 2012 is almost nil and she is apparently no longer a public figure: there is only Wikipedia and a report that the dismissal of her defamation suit was upheld on appeal.

It should be noted that it can be far less damaging when the disruptive event is caused by one of the staff as opposed to the organization itself or a senior leader in the organization. From business and education we have several famous cautionary examples:
New Coke
#McDstories
CEO Reed Hastings of Netflix famous spammy email letter "splitting the company" and raising prices
Harvard President Lawrence Summers' comments on women and science

The main communication messaging during the containment phase is:
  • We have investigated; we are still trying to discover additional information.
  • We are taking this very seriously and will continue to keep all parties informed.
  • We have taken the following actions which were necessary and appropriate.

During the containment phase, the college president should be in constant contact with the board of trustees. In many cases, an emergency meeting may be called to determine the appropriate course of action.


Eradication

If you have fraternities, you have a certain risk of hazing and the hazing leading to injury or death. If you have students, you risk having to deal with cheating. If you have faculty and students, you have a risk of problems because of sexual relations between the two groups. What is particularly important to keep in mind in these scenarios is that you may have more than one example at any given school. At Bethune-Cookman University the president had to deal with seven professors being accused of sexual relations, including four who maintained an off campus apartment and possibly even forced students. Sadly this latter event turned out to be very divisive for the African American community.

The main communication messaging for both the press and the board during the eradication phase is:
  • The institution has a zero tolerance policy and any further infractions will be dealt with swiftly and decisively.
  • We have instituted an awareness and education campaign to reduce the probability of this type of disruptive event recurring.
A plenary session during the next board meeting to strategize how to keep these types of disruptive events from happening again would be a wise investment of time and energy.


Recovery

The Virginia Tech shooting of 2007 was an extremely grievous event. With 33 deaths, almost every student, staff and faculty member knew at least one of the fallen. President Charles Steger put it this way, "Today, the university was struck with a tragedy that we consider of monumental proportions." And mistakes were made in building design and in the response especially in terms of communications. And, people will never forget, nor should they, but VA Tech has managed to put this behind and move on. And with the car thief shooting of 2011, they also showed the tremendous improvements in process they had made.

Contrast this with another school tragedy, the 1970 Kent State shootings. According to president emeritus Carol Cartwright, after the four student deaths, the college turned inward and avoided the limelight for over twenty years.

The main communication messaging for both the press and the board during the recovery phase is: the organization has been made whole again. We had our challenges, but we are back in business even if we are not yet 100% recovered.


Lessons Learned

After a disruptive event, the academic enterprise should make sure to discover knowledge and document the lessons that were learned. This can often be done as part of the self study process. But it should go deeper than that. When we read about disruptive events, what can we learn from them? What policies and procedures should be put into place so that what happened at Bethune-Cookman, Penn State, Yale (remember Casper Desfeux?), or Tufts (a racist song was published in their university magazine), does not happen, or at least is less likely to happen to us?

The main communication messaging during the lessons learned process is: mistakes are meant for learning, not repeating.*

* I am assuming this quote should be attributed to someone, but I was not able to find the source, if you happen to know please drop me a note, stephen <at> sans.edu