Montreal College–Is it fair to grade?

Now that my comments about Montreal’s Dawson College have spilled onto another crisis blog site (crisismanager.wordpress.com) and after having some time to think about Valerie’s comments about my harsh judgment, I can’t resist commenting more.

First, the distinction between a Canadian “college” which is part prep school and part university and a US university. Are the communication expectations the same? My answer: Yes. The expectations for communication for all stakeholders are largely the same. The more your life is impacted personally by what is happening, the more you have a need and an expectation for personal, direct and instant communication. That is the way it is. That’s the expectation. Doesn’t mean it is possible to meet. Doesn’t mean it is easy to meet, but that is the expectation. The closer an organization can come to meeting that, the better their communication response. That means that high schools and schools at all levels need to be aware of this expectation and prepare to respond.

The primary concern of Valerie is the “F” grade I so quickly assigned. I think Valerie has an important point. But I used to be a teacher and the grading process dies hard I suppose. The headline on the blog I wrote said “appears” and that is important. But Valerie is right that in the hours after the event it was far too early to judge the overall communication response. So, in retrospect, I should have made it clear that it was a very initial judgment. Sort of like a pop quiz on the first day of class rather than the final grade. They may do much better in the long term. The problem with communication in this instant news world is that initial impressions count for an awful lot and so that first day pop quiz may actually represent about 50% of the total grade. Even if it is 50%, the F was premature.

Where Valerie and I disagree more fundamentally I believe is that while stakeholder’s expectations may be entirely unreasonable from a responder’s perspective–perception is reality. Those responding during Katrina could give all kinds of reasons why their communication was inadequate. Ultimately, it didn’t matter tot he public.  Expectations were not met and that is the bottom line.

I’m also struggling with Valerie’s sense that I was trading on a tragedy. If that is the case, it is truly despicable. But while I might have used some thoughtless “blogstyle” comments about this, and showed some insensitivity, the purpose of this blog is to examine how organizations are responding to crisis events and learn from them. To not comment because there is a human tragedy involved would eliminate such tragedies from the opportunity to learn. But, would love to hear other thoughts on this.

And Valerie, thanks for the conversation! You certainly have helped me slow down and think about these things.

4 thoughts on “Montreal College–Is it fair to grade?”

  1. “First, the distinction between a Canadian “college” which is part prep school and part university and a US university. Are the communication expectations the same? My answer: Yes. The expectations for communication for all stakeholders are largely the same.”

    Yeah, well, whatever. Perhaps in your view underfunded Canadian prep schools (and trust me, Dawson is and always has been radically underfunded, to an extent that is difficult for Americans to grasp) should all be bringing in high-priced crisis management consultants to prepare them in the eventuality that something will happen, so that within hours of an incident that evacuates a school there is lively content on the website and some canned comments for the press. While I have crisis plans in place for all my clients, I would say that in this case it would be a serious misallocation of funds.

    For most organizations in crisis situations, what they decide to say in haste (witness the Sago mine thing) can be far more damaging than simply saying nothing until all the information is available and, until then, letting authorities do their work. It’s an attitude that doesn’t feed consultants, but no lives would have been saved at Dawson College by being first to the press with piecemeal information. Just because we all live in an “instant news world” (and the extent to which that’s true can be debated) doesn’t imply that organizations must abdicate all right to diffuse information when they see fit. If that doesn’t meet the public’s (or, more likely, the press’) expectations in some cases, I say so what.

  2. Actually Patrick, I have more familiarity with Canadian higher education institutions than you give me credit for, having taught at a Canadian private college and now am chair of the Academic Committee for the same insititution–a seriously underfunded university.

    Glad to hear you are in the crisis planning business. Would love to continue share thoughts with you.

    Re Sago Mine–I wrote an article on this for PR Tactics magazine published by PRSA. The problem was not what was said in haste–exactly the opposite. False information leaked from the Joint Information Center and given to the families and the media and the official communicators did not correct that information for hours even though they knew it was fault. Not a haste problem–a slow problem again.

    You’re right about no lives lost and anyone trained in ICS knows that safety is first. But that is not the point. Once safety is assured and the response is being managed communication is the next priority.

    If we don’t all live in an instant news world, I’d love to have some examples of why. Insitutions have the right to distribute information on their own timetable, you’re right. But the public and stakeholders also have the right–and show they exercise it–to determine that those who do so on their schedule are unresponsive and therefore frequently perceived as unresponsible.

  3. My final word on this topic: From the speech Theodore Roosevelt made in Paris in 1910: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena …” It goes on much longer, but I think this makes my point well enough. It is really easy to step in and criticize; a lot harder to try to hold off and shape what the public perception is going to be.

    In my opinion, that is the real difference between a good journalist and a bad one. And in this day of “instant news” I think that extends to bloggers.

    Part of that mis-perception includes expanding the large-picture failure in communication during Katrina to this kind of situation. Where is the perspective, GB? Doesn’t that count these days?

    BTW: I don’t live up there, but I have yet to see any criticism of the schools’ performance.

  4. My comment about Americans not understanding educational underfunding (outside of inner cities, obviously) wasn’t directed at you, it was a general comment. Most suburban Americans would simply refuse to send their children to the crumbling 70s leftovers that pass for high schools and prep schools in Canada. Which private college are you associated with?

    I think Sago still emphasizes my main point, which is that crisis requires dramatically heightened information control, but not necessarily speedier diffusion (unless that diffusion is an essential element in dissipating the crisis).

    News cycles are one of the most poorly-studied areas in all journalism, a fact that I attribute to the lack of hands-on experience on the part of the journalism profs and students doing the investigating. That being said, it seems clear to me that what we mistake for 24-hour news is in fact either 30 minutes of news produced for mornings and evenings on the usual cycle and repeated 48 times daily (witness CNN), commentary, or regurgitated press releases/VNRs. The rest – discussion forums, blogs, forwarded YouTube links, etc. – is not what I would call news, though it does pack a varying punch. So rather than saying we live in an “instant news world,” I would say we live in an “instant ‘news’ world.” And in dealing with this disorganized, largely self-read, varyingly professional ersatz-news world, I still maintain that information control and consistency, not speed, is key.

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