Like many leaders before her, Florida Atlantic University president Mary Jane Saunders would like a do-over. Several telling comments in a recent interview revealed the administrator’s lack of experience when it comes to media relations, especially social media.
In an interview covered by the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ms. Saunders lamented the influence of Twitter and the blogosphere on her downfall.
Ms. Saunders said she was caught off guard when news articles, often fueled by attacks on social media, directed criticism “toward me personally rather than the institution.” In 24-hour news cycles, where in minutes a few Twitter feeds about a controversy can construct a narrative that may be faulty, Ms. Saunders said she felt powerless to correct what she described as inaccuracies that piled up across the blogosphere. (From Chronicle of Higher Education article)
It’s unfortunate for Saunders that she is learning these lessons after the fact—something that is too common among university presidents today.
”People have to think about what it’s going to mean for big public universities in an era of social media—what can and can’t be controlled,” she said.
University presidents not only need to employ savvy public relations people that know how to use social media, they need to understand the power of social media to mitigate or even prevent an issue from turning into a crisis as well. Today, there is no excuse for not realizing how the 24/7 social media cycle works to protect or ruin a reputation.
What is sad about this situation is that many universities are in similar situations—they just don’t know it. They have a blind spot about how media relations work. Many still believe in the old school philosophy of press releases, controlled news cycles, and using social media to broadcast news. This belief is unfortunately supported by the lack of crisis events at their school. When a crisis hits, it will be too late to learn the lessons Saunders is now talking about. The damage will be done and the reputation recovery effort will be much harder.
Schools would be wise to understand the failure of crisis management on the fly, and get help if they need it. Also, here’s a link to the CASE/CKSyme.org research on the state of crisis communications in higher education. Interesting stats. One thing you can count on: good proactive crisis management is cheaper than reputation recovery.