I’m a little hesitant to do more grading or evaluating how an organization is doing in a crisis after some of the comments about Montreal’s Dawson College–but I’m going to anyway as that was what this blog was set up for. Another tragic university shooting–this time some star basketball players. Here’s the story:
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Armed police officers stood guard outside dormitories at Duquesne University while other officers roamed the downtown campus in their cruisers.
In the chapel, meanwhile, more than 300 students made the regular Sunday Mass standing-room only as they gathered to pray and try to understand how five basketball players could have been injured by gunfire on their tranquil, close-knit campus.
“We’re shocked because an event of this sort has never happened,” Duquesne President Charles Dougherty said. “It’s a safe campus and known to be a safe campus.”
Two players had been walking near a dormitory when they encountered a man who apparently had been disruptive at a student union dance, authorities said. The players attempted to pacify him and walked away but were shot. Players who rushed to their aid were also shot.
I checked the Sydney Morning Herald story and they also had the comment by university president Dougherty. I checked their website and it appears, although I can’t verify the timing, that they had a statement posted on the site on the 17th–the same day of the event. The statement had useful information, had comments from the president, and promised to providing continuing information and be a good source of information about the tragedy.
So, I will stay away from grading, but I will say to my eyes, the contrast between the two institutions is quite strong. It can be done. In this day, it must be done.
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.
Dawson College of Montreal is suddenly all over the news. News reports are telling the story of the wounding of 20 students and the panic caused by a gunman who was apparently killed by police. The problems we see so far:
– where is the presence of college representatives in the news stories? If they are not visible how can we know their reaction and what they are doing about it?
Well, I guess you could go their website to see what they have to say about it. If I was a parent or a friend of a student or someone remotely connected with the university, I would go to their site expecting it to have information about the event and what the school is doing in response. What do you get when you go there?
Big red type that says they will be closed until September 18. Click on the “Read More” button and it gives an old message from the Director General.
Now, I’m writing this at 6 pm on Wednesday, Sept 13 so by the time you read this and check their site hopefully things will have changed. But the story has been on the news for hours. And that’s my point. If you cannot communicate in the first hours after a major event, if you are silent, or oblivious or invisible, you have not only lost critical opportunities for the people important to your future to form positive impressions, you most likely have left a lot of people disappointed. It leads to questions about the competence and caring of the leadership. If it was something where they had culpability (in this case I’m certain not) then it would also lead to questions about responsibility to those impacted.
I hope there is more to this story from a communication standpoint, but I have to say as a total outside observer of the communication effort, it is a dismal failure.