Texas Wesleyan University received some bad news yesterday.
Its baseball coach, a former major league pitcher, sent an email reply to a potential recruit stating he did not recruit players from Colorado because they couldn’t pass a drug test. He added “you can thank your liberal politicians” as a little lagniappe. The kid, justifiably shocked about the vulgar and inconsiderate reply, shared it with Denver-area media.
The reaction was overwhelming – and national. Deadspin, Fox News, USA Today and the Houston Chronicle all picked up coverage, just to name a few of the bigger ones. A parody account sprung up under the coach’s name. In one day, a baseball coach had done what every ad agency always promises to do but can’t: He took TXWES viral.
I am still very close to many of my colleagues at TXWES, and from my conversations with them, I knew the response would be quick, truthful and something everyone in the community could view with pride. I also knew many of them were very hurt by these comments because of the stain they cast on nearly a decade of awards, positive university growth in admissions and advancement, and the “Smaller. Smarter.” brand, which is part of their DNA.
The University issued a statement just after the story broke yesterday afternoon, and this morning, they fired the coach, held a press conference reaffirming their values, and took control of the story.
Which got me thinking: What lessons can be learned from this incident by the entire higher ed PR community?
I’ve been in the media game for more than a decade, sitting on both sides of the reporter’s desk, so I’ve seen how a great response can bolster a brand, and I’ve also seen the catastrophic results of bad responses. Here are a few key lessons that stand out to me:
It’s Not a Question of “If” but “When”
Some PR professionals live huddled under their desks with the fear that someone on campus is going to say something awful, and I can promise you that no PR professional wants to add “handle avoidable national media incident” to their to-do list for the day.
But whether or not your institution will fall prey to the Internet Rage Machine is not a question of “if,” but “when.” You cannot control the actions of everyone at your university all the time. As a result, you should be preparing for a PR crisis today. How do you do that? Regular media training of faculty and staff (and coaches), a clearly defined brand rooted in truth that can be articulated easily, and a clear structure of who is responsible for key tasks in the event of a crisis.
Undoubtedly, the unexpected will happen: One of your key people will be on vacation or maybe you're off-campus at a luncheon. You can’t call an audible until you’ve drawn up a play. Know your plan.
TXWES has managed PR crises before, and already has a plan in place. When the news broke, they were able to immediately start planning a response, conducting interviews and prepping for their follow-up.
Be Fair, But Reaffirm Your Values
The Internet is outraged. Every day. There’s still much research to be done into this phenomenon, but as it pertains to you, know this: There will be nasty, ugly responses from people. Your phones will start ringing all over campus. Stay calm.
TXWES quickly crafted an initial response that told the truth: They were investigating the report and didn’t want to rush to judgement until they had all the facts. This is important for your institution from both a PR and legal perspective. Make a rush judgement and watch the lawyers turn up from nowhere. It is important that you move swiftly, but also accurately.
It is equally important that you use this time to reaffirm your values as an institution. This should be done clearly and boldly and should be misinterpreted as weakness by no one. Note that TXWES reaffirmed any discrimination is against what the school stands for. Good move.
The clock is ticking. You need to work efficiently and move swiftly to craft a response that goes beyond words. Show action. In this case, the coach in question was fired in less than 24 hours. This was a fair, appropriate response, but wait too long and you will be perceived as weak and waffling.
I think it’s worth noting that in some cases, you will have to stand your ground and not fire someone or give in to public pressure. Your case will guide your actions. You will have to help leadership make decisions that galvanizes your brand, provides sufficient legal protection and aligns with the missions and values of your institution.
Encourage Your Leaders to Lead
Even the best PR can’t cover a tepid response from leadership. Today, President Frederick G. Slabach went in front of cameras and boldly said that Texas Wesleyan does not tolerate discrimination of any kind on its campus. That's important. Your university leadership needs to be seen actively leading. That includes potentially negative stories.
Managing PR crises is a skill and it requires the best techniques and skills from you and your office to deliver the message, but good decision-making is the cornerstone of good public relations. Hopefully, you’ve built a fair degree of trust with your institution’s leader before today. Encourage him or her to be bold and out front.
Know the Medium
You’ve heard about not giving negative stories more oxygen by overplaying your response, however, sometimes, there is incredible PR value in doing just the opposite. If you have a strong response based on the techniques we’ve described above, there is real value in calling a press conference or otherwise providing video to accompany it to extend the life of the story.
Consider TXWES: The nature of the Internet Rage Machine is toward a short news cycle. That means your response may be drowned out by the time you craft it while the Internet Rage Machine moves on to the next story. This was a masterful example of when you want to give a negative story more oxygen. By calling a press conference, Texas Wesleyan was able to control the story and use it as a chance to reaffirm its key values. We all love to show our values when it’s popular, but it’s in the storm that you really show what your institution stands for and what it does and does not tolerate. And the response was overwhelmingly positive:
Own Your Brand
You have the ability to control the narrative based on your actions and your response. In the TXWES case, this is a time to own your brand.
Texas Wesleyan is one of the most diverse schools in the nation, is located in urban Fort Worth, and educates students from all backgrounds. This was truly an aberration from the qualities that make Texas Wesleyan so great, one that prides itself on its open and welcoming atmosphere.
A strongly-defined brand makes your decisions in cases like these easy. Texas Wesleyan understands who they are and what they stand for, and they are able to articulate to reporters on the outside, and expect it from employees on the inside. Are you doing the same?
Darren White is the principal consultant at D. White & Company, a higher ed marketing & management consulting firm based in Jacksonville, Fla. DWCo. helps universities implement PR best practices and ready themselves for potential crises. Want to strengthen your PR management? Contact us and set up an appointment.