By Jeffrey A. Davis, APR
The University of Maryland is just beginning to address the damage to its reputation following the death of football player Jordan McNair, a tragic loss for his family, friends and teammates. While not as serious as the loss of a young life, the damage control process will impact the University for many years, from accreditation to donor support to everyday Google searches by prospective students and their parents.
Public relations staffers and counselors are surely advising the University on what to do, no doubt leading them through the classic crisis communications steps. In addition to moving quickly and expressing sympathy, PR pros will counsel clients to be transparent so the public sees:
- That they care
- That the organization is on top of the issue and doing something
- That steps are identified to prevent a recurrence
- That someone is accountable and responsible
- And that you will be part of the solution
All of these need to be conveyed quickly and in a way that expresses humanity.
Has the University of Maryland followed these? From an outsider’s point of view, not entirely. While the communications have been roller-coaster rough (and the media response even harsher), leadership cares and the report outlines changes that need to be made and who is held accountable.
But that last item, “you will be part of the solution,” starts at the top, and that means the Board of Regents, currently consisting of attorneys, retired CEOs, health care executives, bank executives, an accountant, treasurer and civil engineer.
The highly publicized series of missteps made them come off as insulated and out of touch, and I believe the Regents would have been better served with a seasoned public relations executive at their side and inside that boardroom as a member.
Here’s why. At a Public Relations Society of America International Conference years ago I was among the attendees lucky enough to hear from management guru Peter F. Drucker, who is known for saying:
“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
“The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
What I recall from that PRSA keynote was Drucker telling us an indispensable role of the public relations counselor, in his mind, is to represent the outside viewpoint. The view of the non-customer, the opponent or average member of the public. He said that unlike advertising or marketing, PR pros are uniquely trained to listen and bring back to management a strategic interpretation of what they are hearing from the outside.
If an experienced PR exec was inside those closed Board of Regents meetings as a member, who knows? Their insights could have indicated they were off track, predicted the outcry, offered a reality check and made a difference.