This is in response to a couple of comments on this blog about my harsh judgment about the lack of communication in the early hours after the event by the college administration. I pointed to the lack of participation in news stories and the fact that the website did not have any information about the event–as it turns out probably not for about 30 hours after the event.
The two comments I received are enlightening. One, from what I would say is a member of the public and that commenter, agreed with me. The one who disagreed is from a major university emergency management department. When I make presentations about crisis communications which I do quite frequently one of the main points I make is the gap between public expectations and what those who are responsible for responding think is reasonable. These two comments illustrate this point better than I could.
I have worked with a number of schools and universities on crisis communication issues, including right now helping one of the largest universities in the nation prepare to respond quickly to incidents such as this. It is a daunting challenge. But the reality that has to be faced is that the public and stakeholders such as parents of students, key donors, government officials, etc., expect to hear from the university or school involved in this kind of incident. They expect to hear fast and directly. We live in an instant news world. News helicopters and remote video crews are on scene in minutes. The Coast Guard talks about the Golden Hour. In advising clients, we talk about the first half hour. It is clear that the only way it is possible to respond in a situation like this to meet these ridiculous expectations is to prepare in advance. That’s why my book is titled “Now Is Too Late.” Responding during an event is indeed too late. The response needs to be planned in advance and when it happens, the triggers simply have to be pulled.
There is no question at all, particularly given the complexities of the response as the expert who commented from an emergency management perspective knows very well, that communicating with stakeholders in the first hour after an event is very challenging. But it is necessary. Not because I say so but because the stakeholders have developed that expectation. How? Because the media operates in an instant news manner and the stakeholders understand the capability of internet-based fast, direct communication.
Organizations, including large universities, have significant challenges to communicating with stakeholders in this kind of rapid fashion. But the choice to me seems clear. Either find ways to address those obstacles and get that ability to communicate, or face harsh criticism about the failure to communicate in a way that meets expectations. Not from me, because my view really doesn’t matter. But from stakeholders whose lives are impacted by what happens in the event. It is their expectation and their perception of the institution that determines the long term impact on reputation.