Do you know what you’d do if your university landed in the spotlight amid #MeToo allegations? In March 2018, Michigan State University’s dean of osteopathic medicine was arrested and charged with mishandling abuse complaints against since-convicted serial child molester Larry Nassar, who was the USA Gymnastics national team doctor and an osteopathic physician at the school.
Two months later, the university agreed to pay $500 million to Nassar’s victims.
Also in May, University of Southern California, President C.L. “Max” Nikias was forced out over his mishandling of multiple scandals.
Sexual assault and harassment isn’t a one-way street. In August, The New York Times reported on a female NYU professor accused of verbally and physically harassing a male Ph.D. student under her tutelage. So, what do you need to know now to effectively handle problems in the future?
The best time to act is at the first whiff of trouble when you have more options— not after your university is in the headlines and its reputation is already damaged.
Make sure your legal counsel is involved early and consulted often, regardless of whether there’s a lawsuit. Your goals are aligned: To protect the university.
Investigate every complaint. Don’t brush anything aside or you risk creating a crisis that could have been avoided.
It may be tempting to look the other way if a complaint is against a faculty member or administrator who brings in lots of donations. Don’t do it.
Cookie-cutter statements don’t work. Your remarks must be tailored to the situation and must reflect the university’s values.
Go public or keep silent?
If it’s likely the issue will become public, you want to be the one to disclose it.
Typically, whoever goes first sets the tone for everything that follows. But don’t act in haste. Check your facts first. Mistakes take on a life of their own, and they will undermine your credibility.
On the other hand, if you were aware but did or said nothing, the public will be less forgiving.
You must also tell your story to staff, donors and other stakeholders. Each group has different concerns and questions, but your underlying message to all of them must be consistent. Anything you say to one may be shared with others—and may be leaked to the media.
You’ve been warned.
The right spokesperson
You must have a single spokesperson to avoid mixed messages. Who is most qualified, credible and comfortable? The dean, head of the department in question, or director of communications are usually good choices.
Never speak off-the-cuff. Remarks must be carefully crafted, scrubbed of PR no-no’s and approved by the legal team.
What you should—and shouldn’t—say
Cookie-cutter statements don’t work. Your remarks must be tailored to the specific situation. They must reflect the university’s values. Never lie or cover up. The truth will find its way into the light. Show sympathy. Focus on what you’re doing to fix the issue, and paint a picture of what the future will look like.
Don’t repeat negative or emotionally charged words, even if the media is using them. Such words conjure undesirable images. Never say, “No comment.” Doing so makes you look guilty.
What if the allegations are unsubstantiated?
If your investigation finds the allegations unsubstantiated, consult with legal, have the appropriate official respond with the investigator’s conclusions, and offer an opportunity for the accuser to provide more information.
Actions speak louder than words. Adopt changes and tighten your processes. People have an incredible capacity to forgive. But don’t abuse it or the public’s reaction may be fierce.
Former business professor Eden Gillott is president of a strategic communications firm, Gillott Communications. Reach her at [email protected].
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