How freedom of speech became the topic on campuses

It seems that every time you turn on your television or access the top news stories online you see a gathering of college students on campuses across the nation. Sometimes peaceful but often not, these demonstrations can serve as a barometer of the concerns of a generation.

This exercise of freedom of speech through protest is something that is well entrenched in the history our colleges and universities. Demonstrations in support of the civil rights movement, against the Vietnam War, and the somber traveling ceremony of the AIDS quilt in the 1980s have resonated with college students and shone a light on some of the most important issues of our country’s history.

In a sense, this is where these conversations should occur. As institutions of higher learning, our campuses often serve as a microcosm of what is happening in society, and with that we are charged with teaching students how to navigate complex issues in thoughtful and productive ways. It is a weighty challenge, to be sure, but also a noble one — we have the opportunity to build a better community, and world, through a commitment to the values we hold highest, such as inclusivity, tolerance and respect. Ideally, college campuses should be a place where students feel safe to express their opinions, and challenged to consider the points of views of others.

In the past year, however, the notion of college campuses being a haven for civil debate has been turned on its head. Freedom of speech itself is often under attack and deeply misunderstood. Arguments for and against academic freedom are invoked, breeding mistrust between professors and their students. And, as we’ve seen in the media over and over, from Charlottesville to Berkeley to my own backyard in Southern California, college campuses have become a lightning rod for hostile confrontations between opposing groups that have little to no interest in understanding one another.

As communication professionals, the collision of these many different points of view is sometimes a painful process. From an instructional point of view, these events draw us from our mission of educating students. From a branding point of view, these events absorb the precious few resources we have at our disposal to get our message out to potential students and the greater community. It’s hard enough to get noticed by the local media for the good things we do, but competing against sensational stories that drown out everything else we do is nearly impossible.

This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations (NCMPR), an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Providing a clear message with a unified front is proving increasingly difficult as the nation’s political climate becomes more and more fractured every day. In the past, a cadre of students and staff could counter attacks on a college about topics of say, funding or effectiveness, by sharing their story of how higher education helped them succeed. Now, attacks often come from within and without, spilling over into the general community and, sometimes, the national stage. At times, this “perfect storm” that pits students against faculty, faculty against administration, and the community against a college can shake the very core of an institution.

Managing the message

Having a crisis communication plan that creates a crisis response team will provide a roadmap to respond to situations consistently and effectively. But just having a plan is not enough. Members of the crisis team must buy into the plan and trust the process for it to succeed. That of course is easier said than done when you are in the middle of a storm. Here are five recommendations to consider:

Check egos at the door. Someone doesn’t become part of a college’s leadership team by being coy, so strong personalities abound during a brand crisis. It’s always important to speak with one voice and provide a united front. One designated spokesperson should be selected from an incident response team, but that does not always mean that someone else is not equipped to do the job (perhaps the person who seems most suitable to do the job). It simply means that one central person should funnel communication to the media and other stakeholders as often as possible. The spokesperson should also be a person to whom the public has the least emotional connection (negative/positive) in order to neutralize the message.

No response is not a response. It’s important that some level of acknowledgement of a serious issue must occur in order to gain control of the message early. It’s human nature to avoid conflict and this sometimes leads to downplaying the seriousness of a situation. Simply ignoring it and assuming that it will quickly “blow over” is not a best practice. However, an initial response must come at the preliminary knowledge of the situation. If too much time lingers, a simple acknowledgement on the record may be enough to diffuse some of the tension.

Messages include best assumptions. Reponses by spokespeople are developed based on provided facts and best assumptions of outcomes. Based on experience, best assumptions of predicted outcomes can be determined, but there is no guarantee that unforeseen variables will not impact the situation and therefore, require a different approach/response/message. Basically, you do the best you can with the confirmed information you have.

If you need additional resources, get them. Just because you are in the middle of a brand crisis, doesn’t mean your other workload just stops. The business of the college continues and saying “sorry, too busy” is just not going to cut it. If you need additional communication support, then ask for it. Public information officers (PIOs) are a proud folk and the first reaction may be to handle it in-house. That gets old really fast and no one is going to feel bad for you. An added bonus of getting crisis communication help is that more often than not, it will reinforce the communication plan you have outlined. Good crisis communication tactics are universal.

PIOs disseminate information but don’t make policy decisions. The role of the PIO is to communicate college decisions, disseminate the results of investigations, and provide timely information to the media and the community. A PIO may be asked to provide public opinion scenarios to potential conclusions to decision makers and provide communication expertise, but the decisions made on college business is governed by policy and guidelines.

Every crisis and campus culture is different, but following these tips and applying your policies and guidelines consistently will help you weather the storm.

About the Author

Juan Gutierrez
is director of marketing and public relations at Orange Coast College in California.