Responding to a Crisis

Podcast by Daniel Barwick

Nice to be with you this week. I had a great spring break – just coming off -that I hiked the length of the Elk River Trail, which is a fantastic, fantastic hiking trail just outside of Independence, Kansas. If you don’t think of hiking when you think of Kansas, the Elk River Trail will change your mind. It’s just a fantastic, varied place with all kinds of really neat rock formations and great places to camp. This will be a pretty busy week for me – besides getting back into the flow of things after spring break and doing my regular job, I’ll also be headed out to Wichita State University where I’m the featured speaker at the Cohen Honors College banquet later this week. I’m really looking forward to that. It’ll be pretty strange for me because, one member of the audience will be my daughter Laura, who is also in the honors college there at Wichita State.

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Spring break was just in time here at ICC. If you have followed the news, you may have seen us, and not for a good reason, either. Following a pretty ugly text exchange with a student, our football coach, Jason Brown, resigned his position at the college. This generated both national and international news coverage, as you can imagine, because of Jason’s starring role in Last Chance U. The story about the text exchanges, and then his subsequent resignation generated hundreds of news articles in the state of Kansas, in national publications and international publications. At the time this was happening, I certainly didn’t think about doing a podcast about this story. I don’t normally do things that relate to current events, whether at ICC or elsewhere. But since the incident occurred, I’ve gotten a lot of messages and emails from people who think that while the particular story might not be appropriate podcast material, talking about how schools deal with a crisis like that would be, and so I thought I might talk a little bit about how a school ought to deal with a crisis like this.

The fact is most administrators are not trained in public relations, and most of our normal responses in these kinds of situations tend to make the situation worse. I’m going to spend very little time talking about what to do in a crisis, primarily because each crisis has its own unique aspects and most times the response to the crisis has to be tailored to those special aspects. So the majority of this podcast will actually discuss what not to do in a crisis. But I will mention two things about what to do, things that I don’t think get discussed often enough in academia, even though they’re actually fairly well known in the more sort of general crisis management circles.

First, many things that seem like a crisis simply are not. How many times have we read an email, felt a strong reaction and then an hour later or a day later, we realized that the problem wasn’t as critical as we thought it may be, it wasn’t as widespread as we thought, or it had aspects that we didn’t know about that seemed to mitigate what seemed like a crisis? If you’ve been a leader for any length of time, you’ve probably had this experience. You’ve probably had it often, so what often looks to us like a crisis may not be.

Second, what looks like a crisis to others may not be either. How many times has somebody walked in your office or has your phone rung and somebody is at the other end who perceives a crisis? And you listen carefully to them, they’re typically, they’re very upset, they’re very agitated? Oftentimes they’re simply too close to the situation and they’re having trouble getting a little perspective. They think that it’s more of a crisis than it actually is. I would say that at least once a week I’m approached by someone who believes that something is a crisis. I sort of slow walk at a little bit, let them get a little perspective, and usually either by the end of that day or by the next day, that person has come to realize that although the situation may be an important situation, it’s not even remotely a crisis.

I think about crisis management as really three spheres of influence. There’s going to be a sphere that’s very close to me. It’s probably my institution, and it’s probably the surroundings, you know, the immediate geographic surroundings, maybe the city that the institution is within. Maybe it’s a slightly larger region. It really depends on the size of the school. But for the most part, I think of it as the school, its alumni and the host city of the school.

The second sphere is larger, of course. For me it’s typically the region of the country in which the school lies, mostly the state itself. So in our case it would be the state of Kansas, but of course that region, there’s some overlap there because we’re in the southeastern corner of the state. So I think of that second sphere as geographically encompassing a little bit of Missouri, a little bit of Oklahoma, and so forth. That sphere is of course larger geographically, and you’re going to have much less of an impact. Anything you do is going to have much less of an impact in that sphere because the people in that sphere are often much, much farther away from you and have much more sporadic contact with the school in any way.

The third sphere is the national and the international audience, and I won’t disguise for a minute that I think a couple of things. First, your ability to influence that sphere is really limited only by your willingness to screw up and embarrass yourself and say and do the wrong things. The idea that you can positively influence that sphere that you can actually make, a national or an international media, for example, that you can make them treat you a certain way is, I think, a total fallacy. I don’t think there’s, there’s any evidence that you can do that, especially if you’re a very small school. Of course, I tend to act in one way to affect my primary sphere of influence, a different way to effect the second sphere. And as a rule, I don’t act to effect the third sphere at all. Let me explain what I mean by that because I don’t want to make it look like I’m giving up opportunities to interact in that third sphere.

So the first sphere is where you’re going to spend most of your time affecting your immediate surroundings, interacting with employees, interacting with donors or other stakeholders, and basically staying engaged in a way that keeps people as informed as possible and in as constructive a way as possible. At ICC for example, the recent event that we had, I immediately had an open forum for employees. I normally have an open forum for employees once a month. But in this case I called an open forum more or less immediately. I didn’t tell employees that there was no problem, I didn’t tell them how to think or how to act. I really just tried to listen. Employees expressed anger and frustration and dismay and I told them that I felt the same way. If they asked me questions about specific facts that I was legally allowed to answer, I answered them. If they asked a question that for some reason I couldn’t answer, I’d tell them that. And I’d tell them why I couldn’t answer. There really weren’t very many of those. One employee said that she didn’t know how to feel proud of the college knowing that this thing had happened. And that was a chance for me to share with the group how I refocus myself. When I’m in doubt, it’s really easy to get fixated on one specific thing or event. But the fact is a college is a large and complex organization and at any given time there’s lots to be proud of in an organization. And what I do is I like to try to remind myself of what’s going on around me, that I’m proud of what I see my colleagues doing that really make me feel as if I’m working in a very special place. And I shared that technique with the group. It’s not to ignore what’s going on that is negative, or is negatively affecting the college in some way. It’s just to keep it in the context that it’s one part of a larger organization and some parts of that organization are truly positive.

Now, the second sphere, which I would say is the larger local media, certainly the regional and statewide press, as well as your own large social media presence, is where your actions are going to touch the largest number, and that’s why you want to be specific, focused and brief. When the news broke about the text message exchange between our football coach and a student, an exchange that really was in several ways inappropriate, we simply released a very brief statement and that statement read:

“The Independence Community College Board of trustees has met to discuss the situation and offer their input regarding the recent controversy regarding a football coach’s texts to a student. There are a number of elements the college must consider in this case and we expect resolution within a few days. Until that time, the college has no further comment on this personnel matter.”

I mean really, what are we saying here? We still need to do an investigation, so we’re just saying we’re aware of the situation. For those of you who are contracting us, asking us if we have something to say, this is what we have to say. And until we’re ready to say something different, we don’t have anything further to say. It’s true that when you send the media a statement like this, they’re not satisfied. They’re going to ask a lot of follow-up questions, but you have to just stick to your guns and say, as of right now, we don’t have anything further to say.

Then when there was something further to say, we came out with another statement and this one offered very specific new information. It’s entitled “Message From Independence Community College President Daniel Barwick”:

Independence football coach Jason Brown has submitted his resignation to the college, effective immediately. Athletic director Tammy Geldenhuys has appointed current offensive coordinator, Kiyoshi Harris, as interim head coach. This has been a painful episode for the entire campus and community, and its conclusion allows us to fully focus on the students we serve as a college. We should be defined by the outstanding educational quality and value we create for our students, and we believe that we can move past this incident together with our community, faculty, staff, and student body. The college has no further comment on this matter.”

So of course, the idea behind this is to first offer the specific news that the coach has resigned, but then immediately show that something has happened as a result of that, that there’s continuity in the football program through the appointing of an interim head coach. It acknowledges that it’s a painful episode and refers to the conclusion of the episode. Then it springboards into a reminder that the college is focused on educational quality and the value we create for our students and essentially invites everyone to move past it together as community, faculty, staff, and the students, and then says, and that’s it. There’s nothing else we’re going to say.

There’s a couple of reasons why that’s all you would have to say. First of all, it addresses each of the elements that the college wants to convey to its constituents. What has happened, what’s going to happen in the future, reminds them about the positive aspects of the school, lays the groundwork for the conclusion and so forth. But there’s another reason: it’s because if you say anything more than that, you’re going to get into trouble. You’re going to say the wrong thing. Not everybody’s going to be happy with what you say, but honestly, the more you say, the more likely it is that someone’s going to be unhappy with it. Remember, there’s nobody you’re going to make happy. So the question is how much do you want to engage about something that is fundamentally negative?

And this really also touches on why I think it’s fairly pointless to engage that third sphere to try to influence that wider national and international audience, beyond putting out statements like what I just read. So when you’re writing that statement, you know that is what the national media is going to use from what you’ve had to say. And you really, you want to focus, you want to write that very, very carefully because you know that that’s what they’re going to quote. But beyond that, I just don’t touch the third sphere because it’s basically impossible to affect the national conversation in anything but a negative way. And everything you do to try to affect that third sphere is based on the premise that what the worldwide media does is somehow within the control of a of a small community college in a corner of Kansas, and that’s just not the case. So any resources that you sink into that are wasted. Worse, you could have used those resources on other productive things, and still worse, there’s a good chance you’re going to screw it up anyway and either look worse to the world or perpetuate a story that you want to die. By the way, you’re going to get a lot of pushback on that idea. You’re going to be surrounded by people who are acutely aware that a national conversation is happening, that that national conversation does not reflect well on the college. And it might not even reflect well on the people you’re talking to, whether they be other administrators at the college or trustees and they want to somehow change the conversation – they want to affect the conversation. But the idea that you can do that is just false.

I know that it’s frustrating, but sometimes you have to simply accept that something bad has happened. That thing is going to dominate the national conversation for some amount of time, it’ll be unpleasant while it happens, but that time will probably be short and that you have to simply be willing to gut it out. Thomas Hobbes said that life was nasty, brutish, and short, and thankfully so is the news cycle. That doesn’t mean that you’re ignoring your local media because of course, at the local media level, what you’re really doing is trying to provide information about the entire school, not just that single incident. And at some point, important news from elsewhere in the school is going to create a new narrative. You don’t have that opportunity at the national level if you’re a small school, because the national news isn’t interested in some minor achievement at the school.

So rule number one is to understand that there are different spheres of influence and some of them are simply outside of your ability to substantially influence them.

Rule number two, when you are speaking to the second and third spheres, the state level, the national level, you need to be very, very concise. Detail is your enemy and it probably goes without saying that. If you say anything off the cuff to the state or national media, you’re on your own.

Rule number three, focus on the sphere closest to you. The first sphere, the employees, the students, the local community, the alumni, the donors. These are the people who have invested the most in your institution and they are owed the most by the institution. These are the people that when the noise has died down our steel, your coworkers, there’s still the people that have come to you with an educational problem that you’re going to solve. They’re the people who are most likely to be your friends in the long term. At our most recent board meeting, shortly before the meeting began, I was sitting in my seat waiting for the meeting to start and as I was sitting there, one of our longest, most prominent supporters came up to me and she knew that had been a rough couple of weeks at the college. She gave me a hug and a kiss, and she said, I’ll always be a pirate. I can’t tell you how that felt. I guess the best I can do is to say that I felt like at that moment, like in the end, I could get through anything that whatever the problem that we were a team of dedicated people and we could get through it together.