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A Secondary Degree in Crisis Communications: University of Michigan’s Textbook Response

Posted on January 18, 2022 by Andrew Moyer, Brendan Griffith and RJ Bruce
crisis communications, Reputation Partners

Like any organization, higher education institutions face a myriad of potential crises and issues, ranging from accreditation to on-campus crime/safety to financial concerns to diversity concerns and unionization pushes. A different headline surfaced out of the University of Michigan this past weekend. The University announced the immediate termination of its president Mark Schlissel. On the heels of this news, our team of crisis experts took a moment to share commentary on the University’s communications approach, both internal and external, surrounding the announcement. Take a look!

Actions Speak Louder Than Words – U of M is Walking the Walk

“To most people reading about this situation, their focus and attention will naturally (and understandably so) go to the headline of a major university president being fired or the ‘wow factor’ of the university releasing 120 redacted emails about the matter for public consumption. Yet, a likely overlooked piece is how the reporting of this incident was handled and its potential positive, lasting impact on the University. Oftentimes at organizations where incidents of inappropriate and/or sexual activity occur, we uncover a culture rooted in toxicity that prevents or dissuades incident reporting. Whether employees don’t trust established reporting mechanisms (even if anonymous), fear retaliation, or in the unfortunate cases where incidents were knowingly reported with zero follow-up action, percolating issues are swept under the rug and alleged perpetrators are not held accountable. With this weekend’s news, the University of Michigan just made a loud statement regarding the seriousness with which it takes reported incidents and the accountability they’ll place on those accused – all the way up to the institution’s highest ranking official. As a university that values (per their recent commentary) dignity, its reputation and creating a culture of respect, Michigan has taken a major step to start ‘walking the walk.’ I view this as a strong move by the University to use its actions as a signal to all its employees: “If there is an issue, we want to hear from you, and we have proven we will act!” And, hopefully, this prevents future incidents at the University and solidifies the culture it wishes to create.” – Brendan Griffith, Senior Vice President

Applauding the Board’s Initial Communications

“I applaud the Board for an initial communication that really limited the uncertainty that can often come with announcements like this. In their announcement communications, the Board: 

  • Announced that the removal was “effective immediately” – limiting the uncertainty that can come from a void in leadership during an abrupt transition
  • Included the name of the Interim President, and shared timing around a search – limiting the uncertainty around who will be in charge, and for how long
  • Specified that the relationship violated the newly developed university policy on supervisor-employee relationships – limiting the uncertainty on if leadership would be held to the same standards as other employees
  • Provided specific evidence, 120 appropriately redacted emails, related to the issue – limiting the uncertainty around what grounds the Board had for the dismissal

While there will undoubtedly be questions, the Board’s strong communications when announcing their decision has been effective at limiting the number of follow-on stories that would have been focusing on trying to answer outstanding uncertainly around any of the points above if they hadn’t been addressed immediately.” – Andrew Moyer, Executive Vice President & General Manager

Clear, Concise and Correct – An Exemplary Response

“Having to publicly announce this kind of news is never something an institution wants to do but, from a communications perspective, the University of Michigan and its Board did everything right. 

The communications intended for audiences outside the University community (i.e., media, the public, etc.) were clear, detailed and concise, preemptively answering many of the questions that would be asked and ensuring there was no room for any of the information to be misconstrued. The University’s transparency will also likely shorten the length of time the media and others will pay attention to the story, ensuring it can move forward more quickly than if the information surrounding the former president’s departure remained undisclosed or buried. 

I was also impressed by the internal-focused communications intended for students, faculty, staff and others within the University. Not only did these communications share the details of the situation, they also clearly advised how the University was going to move forward from the situation, reinforced commitments to safety and maintained an appropriate balance in tone when discussing the gravity of the situation while projecting positivity for the future. Also, by making all the communications about the situation, as well as the evidence showing the previous president’s inappropriate behavior, easily accessible from the home page of the University’s website, the Board removing any confusion about the situation and preventing any false or inaccurate rumors from spreading.  

Overall, the Board did an excellent job communicating about a less-than-ideal situation. By being as transparent as possible, addressing the situation with all audiences and by already focusing on the search for a new, permanent president, it and the rest of the University will be able to move forward quickly.” – RJ Bruce, Account Director – Crisis & Issues

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