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When to talk, when not to talk PR musings

We use this forum a lot to talk about University News’ success in getting RIT stories placed in the media. The good things happening here on campus provide the vast majority of opportunities for our team to work with colleagues in the media. But occasionally, it becomes our job to react when things go wrong.

Such was the case this weekend after an off-campus party resulted in the hospitalization of four underage students for symptoms of alcohol poisoning. This was a very serious situation, and recent reporting on the problem of binge drinking among American college students prompt local news organization to react to this incident.

There is a train of thought, though widely discredited, that an organization should say as little as possible in the wake of a crisis. The concern is whether a response might make matters worse, so avoid comment and just let the matter blow over. Most experts agree the “no comment” approach usually signals to media that the organization is hiding something, and that may be reflected in the reporting.

Despite the difficulty presented, our view at RIT has always been to step up and work with media to provide the university’s perspective on tough situations. Now let me be clear, that doesn’t mean we bare our soul. Our priority is to protect the university’s reputation and the safety of our campus community. As a result, carefully crafted messaging is vital to managing media relations during a crisis situation.

Internally, we’ve debated whether we can be too accommodating to media when situations fall short of a crisis. When the most recent report on college-age binge drinking came out in March, RIT was the only local college or university (as far as I can tell) to discuss the impact of its drug and alcohol awareness education policies, warts and all, with local reporters. Frankly, the results from that coverage were mixed. We responded in the spirit of good media relations, we help you—you help us, but I’m not sure there was any payoff on this one. And that raises the question—does RIT have to serve as the poster child for every controversial issue related to the higher education community? Again, what’s the payoff?

I feel confident in saying that RIT and University News will remain proactive in its efforts to work closely with media during a campus crisis. There’s too much as stake not to. As for the other stuff, I’m wide open to feedback.

  1. Justin Thorp
    May 08

    Paul, can't having "carefully crafted messaging" be understood as spin... that RIT is trying to hide something...that all the PR people are sitting in a room trying to decide the best way to talk to the media about something?

    What about radical transparency...letting it all bare? What would be wrong with that? Doesn't having an organization that is honest with its struggles about how to handle a situation just make you trust the organization more? It shows the organization is made of people.

    Sadly, the binge drinking and kids getting hospitalized doesn't surprise me.

    Paul, sometime we need to compare notes over lattes.

  2. Paul Stella
    May 09

    There are cynical observers of PR that would classify that as spin, yes, Justin. But when I talk about "crafting" a message, the intent is to state the "facts" in a way that do not create confusion or raise unnecessary questions. In an instance like this, the wrong words can be very damaging, not only to RIT but to those individuals directly impact ed by the situation. For example, we have to be careful not to say something that would reveal the identity of one of the victims. We are obligated to protect their privacy, and that's true of any member of the RIT community. Failure to do so could put RIT in legal jeopardy, so complete transparency is not an option. That said, we strive to be as transparent as possible to illustrate what steps the university has taken in response to the situation. That's what we did here, and hopefully there no perception that RIT is hiding something. Good question, Justin.

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