University of Missouri Protests and Communications Implications

Guest blogger Kevin Anselmo shares his perspective on lessons for communicators from what is happening at the University of Missouri and other institutions across the country.

November 13, 2015

We need to always be prepared for crisis communication. I can only imagine how difficult these past few weeks have been for communicators at the University of Missouri as they have navigated this crisis in which their school has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. 

There are so many different dimensions to this story according to the reports I have read.  In very brief summary (skip this paragraph if you already know), African American students led protests because administrators were slow to respond to various safety issues raised. Things seemed to come to a culmination following negative student encounters with University President Tim Wolfe. One graduate student went on a well-publicized hunger strike and a group of football players threatened to not participate in a game. Ultimately, Wolfe and Chancellor Bowen Loftin stepped down.

I am not onsite, but from afar there are several implications for higher education communicators - as well as administrators who communicate during times of crisis - that should be considered. Here are just three.

1) Crisis Communications Training

According to reports, there were two instances in which Tim Wolfe was caught completely off guard. First, protestors blocked his car when he was trying to leave an event. He reportedly drove off without addressing any of the student concerns and his car "bumped" into a protester. In another instance, students cornered him outside of a fundraiser. They asked him to give his definition of systematic oppression. According to a piece in The Atlantic, the exchange went like this:

“I will give you an answer, and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer,” Wolfe said. Then he explained: “Systematic oppression is because you don’t believe that you have the equal opportunity for success.” The students reacted in shock.

One could certainly question the response. However, this is not an easy task. Who among us would feel adequate to leave their work office today only to be unexpectedly surrounded by a group of angry individuals who are demanding answers to sensitive questions?

Hence the reason for training. Ironically, in his resignation speech, Wolfe said that change should come from "listening, learning, caring and conversation." This is approach would have served Wolfe much better in some of these unwelcome situations. Effective training would provide the path to use these attributes to create change. In addition, training equips individuals to steer away from unwelcome conversations (such as defining systematic oppression) and move it in the direction that will lead to optimal results. 

Training across a school would also mitigate the risk of stakeholders communicating in an inappropriate fashion.

2) Action and Package

In a press release announcing the resignation of Loftin and Wolfe, the school announced a series of actions it would be taking to address the concerns raised by students. At that point, it was too little, too late. If those actions had been taken sooner, then the situation perhaps could have been far different.

At the same time, I think the situation is a reminder about the importance of highlighting different stories on campus. For example, Loftin has been an advocate of college access for low-income and under-represented students and has spoken about it at length, both in the press and different events. I would venture to say that many of these student protest groups were unaware of this. Perhaps a bit of strategic communications around different initiatives could go a long way to easing people's concerns. (This not to say whether or not he handled this crisis well and that there were other actions he should have taken).

3) Avoid Knee-Jerk Reactions and Remember Higher Education's Purpose 

From everything that seems to have gone on at the University of Missouri, it seems like the protesting students had a legitimate gripe and that administrators should have taken action. However, an ongoing challenge is how we should respond to every protest group that might pop up.

Nicholas Kristof wrote a terrific Op Ed in the New York Times about this. As a politically leaning liberal, he voiced concerns about individuals whose views - in this case conservative - were not welcomed. Kristof noted how Wesleyan students debated cutting the funding for the student newspaper after it ran an op-ed criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement and how protests led to the withdrawal of Condoleezza Rice as commencement speaker at Rutgers and Christine Lagarde at Smith. He didn't mention the Vanderbilt professor who is being asked to resign for writing an Op Ed in which she looked at Islam in an unfavorable light in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France.

Violent threats should never be tolerated. But the spirit of "tolerance" can very quickly lead to feelings of intolerance of people and groups who don't see things exactly their way. Part of education is seeing differing points of view. We need to find the ways to communicate this message, particularly when the noise levels from different groups amplify.

Kevin Anselmo is the founder and principal of Experiential Communications, a consultancy focused on higher education. You can follow him on Twitter @kevinanselmo.


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