Crisis Communications Statements That Say Nothing

GW TodayBy Gerard Braud

Leaders are slow to communicate in a crisis, so I get excited when I see an executive initiate some type of crisis communications. However, the example I’m going to show you here, in my expert opinion, does little to effectively communicate. Also, with two potential crises, this executive opts to focus on the lesser of the two and ignores the bigger crisis.

I was contacted by reporter Colleen Murphy with the George Washington Hatchet, the student newspaper at George Washington University. Her initial call was to get my reaction because a past GW president had made a comment on NPR regarding college women being drunk and how that might contribute to them being a victim of sexual assault.

Critics of the past president resented the suggestion that a woman would be anything more than a victim in a sexual assault. (In fairness, if you listen to the full interview for full context you would likely agree with what was actually said and not what people perceive was said.) Sensitive to the negative outcry, the current president decided to issue a statement. However, at the time the president is issuing his statement, a co-ed had just filed a sexual assault complaint after she reported being assaulted in a fraternity house.

GW presidentGW President Steve Knapp writes, “My responsibility as president is to make my own and the university’s position — and the steps the university is actually taking — as clear as I can.” To that, I say bravo.

But read on and see how Knapp’s statement is anything but clear. He also fails to outline any real steps. And, in light of the sexual assault report just filed, notice how Knapp fails to mention the assault in his statement:

“My strongly held position is that sexual assault under any guise and regardless of the circumstances is utterly repugnant and unacceptable. In recent years, we have hired a Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and a Title IX Coordinator, and we are currently seeking a Coordinator of Sexual Assault Prevention and Student Advocacy. Together with others across the university, including many dedicated faculty members, students, and staff, this team is advancing our efforts to create a university culture in which every member of our community understands that sexual assault must not and will not be tolerated. Our work must focus unambiguously on ensuring that the university is fully supportive of the survivors of such acts and treats appropriately those who are found to have committed them,” Knapp’s statement concludes.

As I told the reporter, this was an excellent time to advance the discussion about assaults. Hiring a new Provost will not stop assaults. Lost from Knapp’s statement is anything that educates female students as to how to prevent an assault. This was a perfect time to give the best three tips for avoiding being a victim. Absent is an attempt to educate male students about what is unacceptable behavior. Lost is the opportunity to set new, strong standards for attacking this problem at GW.

I laugh at the sentence, “Our work must focus unambiguously on ensuring that the university is fully supportive of the survivors of such acts…” because the entire statement is ambiguous.

Some executives and public relations people have a way of saying many words, but failing to effectively communicate. Behold: I give you GW University.

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