Mizzou must communicate more

Mizzou in Crisis

Mizzou’s public relations machine got back in action today after seeming paralyzed for several days. As a former public relations professional at Mizzou, I’m on edge.

The university’s Facebook and Twitter pages went silent from Saturday to Tuesday, when the university posted an introduction to interim Vice Chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Chuck Henson.

Mizzou’s website and social media don't state what actually happened over the past few days. While the new vice chancellor is announced, the interim chancellor is not. The University of Missouri Board of Curators issued a news release about Foley’s appointment.

In an interview with NPR aired on All Things Considered today, Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education said,

“Any college president, when confronted by a crisis, needs to respond quickly, empathetically and to get it right. It’s not clear if the University of Missouri responded either quickly or empathetically enough.”

Today Mizzou’s new administration addressed the “significant turbulence” of the past week. The statement acknowledged pain and addressed next steps. It was signed by Hank Foley, Garnett Stokes, and Chuck Henson. It did not include the titles of these men. (Foley became interim chancellor on Monday and Stokes is provost.) The statement closed with: 

“We feel the weight of the world’s eyes upon us. We will not flinch from the work ahead.”

Journalism School Dean David Kurpius sent an email to alumni and friends addressing the news of the week. He wrote about the school’s stance on inclusiveness and the importance of the First Amendment. He included all of the pertinent facts, as you would expect.

I don’t see statements from any of the other deans online.

Tuesday the Mizzou Alumni Association Governing Board issued a statement saying it is “deeply troubled and concerned about the tensions at Mizzou.”

The board announced it is partnering with alumni to relaunch the Black Alumni Network. I received the statement in email since I am an alumni association member.

I’m also a donor. I have not received any communication from Mizzou based on my relationship to the university as a donor. The university launched a $1.3 billion campaign in October. This upheaval will make achieving that goal extremely challenging. Mizzou Advancement needs to communicate with donors immediately. The deans and other campus leaders will be key communicators during this transitional time. Have them connect with their top donors this week. Time is of the essence.

I'm on edge because of past experience. I left Mizzou in 2010 to work at the University of Montana Foundation. The next year, the University of Montana was confronted with a rape crisis. The university did not manage the crisis communications well.  The reputational damage has been a major contributor to a 15 percent drop in enrollment in four years: from a record enrollment of 15,669 students in 2011 to 13,358 students this fall. This has meant millions of dollars in budget cuts.

I suggested Montana hire outside public relations counsel. The administration decided not to. The in-house staff could not handle monitoring of the constant barrage of comments and reporter requests. The PR leader ended up losing his job. The story of the university’s crisis appeared all over national media, on the cover of Time, on 60 Minutes, and in The New York Times. Now there is even a book about it, disturbingly named Missoula. (The beautiful city takes a hit, too.)

Mizzou would benefit from outside counsel. The university’s reputation already has received significant damage. Parents are on social media saying they will not send their children to Mizzou. One man insulted all Mizzou alumni as a response to one of my posts.

The 300,000 living alumni of the University of Missouri want to see their alma mater regain its footing. And the people of Missouri want their flagship university to be a safe place for their children to learn. The communications decisions made at Mizzou in the coming weeks are critical to the university’s future.

What advice do you have?