Last week, Ken Steele looked back at some major PR headaches sparked by students and faculty, from white student unions to a blogging board member.
But some of the biggest media relations migraines of all start at the top, with board chairs and presidents.
It’s a considerable risk for a multi-million-dollar organization to rest its reputation squarely on the shoulders of a single individual. Last year Subway’s spokesperson, Jared, went to prison on child sex charges. And the president of a small Christian college in South Carolina resigned in disgrace over his sexual indiscretions.
At Western University, president Amit Chakma’s double pay made headlines in 2015, but he had done nothing wrong in accepting a contract with administrative leave. The bigger issue was that the board committee normally responsible for negotiating such contracts was bypassed, and the board chair, Chirag Shah, seemed responsible. A task force made 22 recommendations for governance reform at Western, and Shah stepped off the board at the end of his term last November.
The year’s biggest PR headache, though, was the abrupt resignation of UBC president Arvind Gupta, only a year into his term. The board hired a passionate reformer with a bold agenda. Gupta didn’t have the usual university administration experience, but instead had founded Mitacs, a fairly small nonprofit. From the beginning, Gupta made it clear he wanted to make UBC more relevant to the needs of society, and he knew that driving change would make some people uneasy.
The board itself started growing uneasy, with the departure of senior executives like provost David Farrar, and rumblings of poor morale across the institution. There were controversial, perhaps political, appointments made to the president’s office. Board chair John Montalbano wrote strongly-worded emails to Gupta, urging him to “refrain from thinking controversial thoughts out loud,” and expressing concern about his “willful disregard for the board’s authority.” With the leaking of these emails, in January 2016, Gupta went public with his side of the story, expressing regret that he didn’t push back harder against the board, and instead chose to resign.
The abrupt departure of a president, after significant executive changes and barely concealed friction with the board chair, would have been bad enough for the media relations people tasked with managing the situation. But then, business professor Jennifer Berdahl wrote a blog suggesting that Gupta lost a “masculinity contest.”
The blog itself might have gone unnoticed amid a storm of speculation, if not that board chair Montalbano took exception. He felt “hurt” that accusations of racism and sexism were being hurled by a professor he knew personally. And so, one fateful day, he called her to discuss the blog directly. Montalbano claimed he was extraordinarily careful, throughout the call, to confirm that Berdahl felt comfortable discussing the blog, and that she did not feel her academic freedom was being threatened or compromised.
But a few days later, Berdahl either changed her mind or found her voice, and a new blog railed against Montalbano’s attempt to intimidate her and suppress her right to academic free speech. She went to the media, and claimed he threatened to discuss the “trouble she was causing” with her dean. Ultimately a fact-finding investigation agreed with Berdahl, and Montalbano stepped down from the UBC board in August.
Global News interview with Arvind Gupta
Global News interview with John Montalbano
Some of the biggest dysfunctions on college and university campuses occur when outsiders attempt to push an agenda without truly appreciating the subtleties of academic politics. It’s vitally important to recognize that universities aren’t so much hierarchies, as loose democracies.
Even after someone is fired, the media migraine can continue. Last year, former president Ralph Weeks sued Medicine Hat College for wrongful dismissal in 2013, and Ilene Busch-Vishniac sued the University of Saskatchewan too.
Scandals and controversies can explode in the media like a reputational bomb. There’s no point attempting to bury an inconvenient truth on campus, because it will always surface, and when it comes to light the damage will be even worse. It’s always preferable to identify potentially explosive issues early, be proactive in treating them, and transparent in reporting them to the campus community. Best to find the bomb and defuse it, than have it go off unexpectedly and take everyone by surprise.
(BTW, Ken Steele is available to facilitate workshops or present at conferences and on campuses about PR headaches and how to manage media relations in a crisis. More information)
This week we feature an excerpt from UNB Fredericton’s “dog’s eye view of campus” featuring Lucy.
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