Spitfire Strategies

When Crisis Strikes: Day One

The first 24 hours are often among the most critical when responding to a crisis. Your response during this time can make or break the public’s opinion and determine whether you are able to ultimately recover. It is important to manage the crisis in the moment while also looking toward the future.

We recently saw this play out in a very public way at the University of Virginia (UVA). Rolling Stone published an article bringing light to an incredibly important issue, and one that many college campuses unfortunately face: sexual assault. The article specifically criticized the administration for how it has historically handled cases of sexual assault. It received immediate national attention.

The first 24 hours of this crisis caused increasing anger and distress for people following the story throughout the country, who were clamoring to hear what UVA was planning to do about the problem. The university’s initial response was less than satisfying. Its first statement regarding the article, which failed to acknowledge the full extent of the problem or identify concrete steps for action moving forward, came nearly 12 hours after the article was posted. Many lamented it was too little, too late.

UVA’s recovery from this crisis is ongoing (especially given recent questions about the article’s authenticity), but there are several lessons to glean from the first 24 hours that can be applied to any attack on an organization.

  1. Have a plan in place that lays a foundation for response. A solid crisis communication plan will identify potential crisis scenarios and the messages to communicate to internal and external audiences. Even if the current crisis doesn’t mirror what’s in the plan, it will give you a good starting point and allow you to respond quickly. Had UVA had such a framework in place, it might have been able to come out with an effective statement within a couple hours of when the article was published. By waiting all day to put out a statement, UVA set the stage for an increasingly negative reaction.
  1. Gather the right folks at the table early. And make sure they know in advance that they’re part of the crisis communication team. For nonprofits, team members will likely include the executive director, communication lead, HR and any relevant program staff. Also consider whether you should have a lawyer involved. If your organization is feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, it’s smart to bring in an outside firm to help you strategize on your response.
    You also need to consider who you need to be listening to when constructing your initial statement. Determine who those voices are and how you bring them into the discussion. For example, UVA could have immediately asked for perspective from One in Four, an all-male organization at the university dedicated to ending sexual assault, or Take Back the Night, a national co-ed organization working on the same issue. This critical feedback would have helped the administration respond more effectively.
  1. Consider the emotional response. If you want to keep your audience’s trust, you’ve got to acknowledge their emotions during a crisis. When the Rolling Stone article was posted online, there was an instant uproar on social media, particularly from UVA students, alumni and faculty. People expressed outrage, frustration, horror, disgust and sorrow.
    At a time when the UVA community was looking to leadership to validate emotions and establish a clear path for moving forward, UVA’s first official statement used mild, mechanical language, rather than articulating the frustrations the community was feeling. It was defensive rather than offensive, citing previous attempts to address sexual assault at the school rather than talking about current plans to address this problem. This initial reaction from the administration was incongruous with the impassioned response from the UVA community as a whole, creating a perceived divide between the community and its leadership in a critical moment.
  1. Course correct when necessary. When crisis strikes, you must be agile. Though you should have a basic plan in place, you must be willing to quickly adapt to the circumstances as they change. When folks reacted negatively to UVA’s first statement on the Rolling Stone article, the university listened. Two days later, the administration sent a message to the UVA community –including alumni – condemning abhorrent crimes like the one outlined in the article, acknowledging the sharp emotions felt by the entire community, and detailing the steps the administration is taking and how the community can get involved.

One of UVA’s most important moments of course correction is happening now. The facts in the Rolling Stone article and the reporter’s adherence to journalistic protocol have been called into question after further investigation. The university faces a whole new crisis now that the exact truth behind the story has become unclear.

Sexual violence is a problem throughout college campuses, and one that the UVA community was struggling to address effectively prior to the Rolling Stone article. The atrocity of the incident described in the piece and the national spotlight shined on UVA helped the university gain much needed momentum on the issue. There is no question that sexual assault is rampant, but will UVA be able to maintain as strong a drumbeat for reform now that this catalyst for change has been questioned? Initial statements from the administration and the student body seem to say absolutely yes.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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