As the University of British Columbia stumbles from crisis to crisis, UBC officials have tried in vain to put a brave face on their problems ranging from sexual assaults to faculty mutiny.
While it is completely understandable that one of Canada’s most prestigious universities would want to safeguard its reputation. We have to ask the question at what point does an obsession with good public relations become a problem in and of itself?
If you haven’t been following the UBC drama here are the “Cliff Notes”
Governors’ chairman John Montalbano stepped down in November 2015 after Madam Justice Lynn Smith found UBC had failed to protect the academic freedom of UBC Professor Jennifer Berdahl. Berdahl wrote a blog post suggesting that the former president Arvind Gupta had lost a “masculinity contest” with school leadership.
Despite the fact that copies of emails between Montalbano and Gupta had been leaked months later supported that claim. UBC’s PR approach to the situation only served to amplify the damage.
The judge didn’t find Montalbano broke any policies himself, but stated that nobody had stopped him from making an “unprecedented and unwise” phone call to Berdhahl to tell her how unhappy he was with her blog post.
The office of the dean of the Sauder School of Business appears to have been more concerned about potential fallout from Berdhahl’s post on a somewhat obscure blog which most people might never have heard of had the whole situation been handled better.
According to Madam Justice Lynn Smith
“Concerned about Mr. Montalbano, Sauder’s reputation and future fundraising prospects, the dean’s office conveyed a message about those concerns to Dr. Berdahl,” “At the same time, it failed to elicit her point of view or state support for her in the exercise of her academic freedom.”
It’s an old school approach which appears to be typical of the way UBC handles problems — an organization stuck in an era when crisis communication meant a press conference and an apology.
“The era of holding press conferences is coming to an end,” says Canseco, vice-president of Insights West. “If you don’t engage people using the tools that they’re communicating with, it’s going to be very difficult to try to turn the tide and change perceptions they have of you and your brand.” With 60,000 students and 15,000 staff, UBC is effectively a small community.
Given the youth of the student population, it’s impossible not to expect social media buzz around major events on campus to outstrip official proclamations.
This week, UBC has had to deal with the faculty association’s vote of no confidence in the board of governors, continued fallout from the Gupta affair and the search for a new president. The university’s vice-president of external relations has called the vote a “healthy internal discussion” which is good to have in a place full of “big personalities and big egos”.
However, critics have complained that the board is treating the university like a corporation, as opposed to the open marketplace of ideas, dissent and democratic principles that you would hope to find in an academic institution.
The facts about Gupta’s departure are gradually emerging through a series of access to information requests, leaks, and the former president’s decision to break his own non-disclosure agreement.
UBC would do well to retain a proven PR agency or at the very least follow the Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication which were first espoused in 1988, well before the era of social media – the fact they are still valid today is a testament to their enduring value.
- Accept and involve the public as a partner. Your goal is to produce an informed public, not to defuse public concerns or replace actions.
- Plan carefully and evaluate your efforts. Different goals, audiences, and media require different actions.
- Listen to the public’s specific concerns. People often care more about trust, credibility, competence, fairness, and empathy than about statistics and details.
- Be honest, frank, and open. Trust and credibility are difficult to obtain; once lost, they are almost impossible to regain.
- Work with other credible sources. Conflicts and disagreements among organizations make communication with the public much more difficult.
- Meet the needs of the media. The media are usually more interested in politics than risk, simplicity than complexity, danger than safety.
- Speak clearly and with compassion. Never let your efforts prevent your acknowledging the tragedy of an illness, injury, or death. People can understand risk information, but they may still not agree with you; some people will not be satisfied.
First published by Adrian G Stewart at OOKII.Company