crisis communications

How UVa Handled the Announcement of President Teresa Sullivan’s Resignation

By Communications, Crisis Communications

On Sunday, June 10, the University of Virginia released the news that Teresa Sullivan, a president with just two years’ tenure, had been asked to resign. I talked at length with Coy Barefoot on WINA Newsradio 1070, Charlottesville: Right Now on the topic of how the news has been handled.

The challenge with releasing news such as this is that no matter what it’s going to be a shock. There are going to be questions that are either unanswerable or not available for discussion, based on legally binding arrangements among the affected parties. The decision to hold the press conference on a Sunday morning was smart; missing the Sunday paper news cycle and letting the community wrap their collective minds around the information before the opening of business on Monday sidestepped a lot of immediacy in the need to be reactive. Of course, a sudden dismissal of this kind can rock the reputation of a university and of a community that depends so heavily on a university as its major employer, and UVa should be mindful and careful to monitor its online reputation as discussion of Sullivan’s dismissal ensues.

In crisis communications, we urge clients to share news with transparency and reassurance, and the University has focused their messaging on the future: what steps the University is taking to recruit and place a new president. While explanations for the action are somewhat vague and unsatisfying to the community, it’s likely that very few details beyond what we know now will be revealed.

What do you think about how the University has handled the news?

From C’ville Weekly:

“Around 11:30am Sunday, students and faculty received an e-mail from UVA Rector Helen Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington announcing that Sullivan would resign on August 15. Sullivan, who was quoted in the e-mail, said she and the Board had “a philosophical difference in opinion,” but didn’t elaborate.

At an emergency meeting with vice presidents and deans later the same day, Dragas briefly discussed the budgetary hardships faced by the Board and implied a difference of priorities between members and President Sullivan.

“We have calls internally for resolution of tough financial issues that require hard decisions in resource allocation,” Dragas wrote in a memo summarizing the meeting that was posted on UVAToday. She said the compensation of UVA’s employees is continuing to decline, and the challenge of filling vacated spots is “truly an existential threat to the greatness of UVA.”

The Board still has personal respect for Sullivan, she wrote, but indicated it wants a leader who is more bold and proactive on tackling difficult decisions.

“We are living in a time of rapidly accelerating change in both academia as well as in health care,” Dragas said at a press conference on Sunday.

“That environment, we believe, calls for a different approach to leadership.”

Read more:

The Washington Post 

C’ville Weekly

The Huffington Post


Still Working. Still Committed.

By Corporate Strategy, Crisis Communications, Public Relations

Does that sound familiar? Do you feel like you’ve heard that somewhere? That’s because BP Global does not want you to forget that they are still working in the Gulf of Mexico funding nature research, promoting tourism, and helping the area recover from the oil spill of 2010. 

Look, I know no one loves big oil, but they have done a phenomenal job with their crisis communications. Here’s a feel good video for you:

Restoring the Gulf

Everything you could want to know about where they are and what they are doing is on the website dedicated to their restoration work. What actually happened during the spill? How have they changed their safe guarding measures? What are local residents saying? How has it all affected wildlife? Yes, it is all on there. The bad news and the good news on what happened and BP’s response program; it’s all there. What is great about this? Hearing live people tell their stories. These voices are of real people affected by the spill. This is not a spokesperson telling us how they are helping:

Hope with BP’s Vessels of Opportunity Program

Showing the hard realities of the crisis makes the positive response feel more authentic. This spill happened 2 years ago, and BP has invested heavily in their communication to make sure that the public knows they are involved. Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube are  updated regularly. The stories are both informative and personal.

Crisis Communications is one of those aspects of our work that doesn’t get a lot of day-to-day attention. It’s easy to talk about Social Strategy or Brand Positioning, but when it comes to a crisis, you want to have that red folder to turn to. We work with our clients to think about what would be a crisis within their company, who would be your spokesperson, which media would you reach out to, how would you acknowledge fault and move forward with an actionable plan. And then, like BP, truly invest in that actionable plan.

So I’m ready for it. Do you hate me for saying I think BP is doing a good job?

WTF? Friday: Earthquakes and Twitter

By Social Media

Tuesday we had an earthquake in Central Virginia. Maybe you heard about it. As of last night we were still having aftershocks and frankly, I don’t think any of us living here have gotten over the emotional shock of a 5.8 rated quake. I was sitting outside having lunch with my daughter in Charlottesville’s downtown pedestrian mall when the quake hit. It was definitely a WTF? moment as the motion and sound took everyone present a second or two to register the thought, “This is an earthquake.”

It was both hilarious and fortunate for a news junkie like me that people went immediately to Twitter and Facebook to share the earthquake experience. My daughter, 15, went to Facebook; I went to Twitter.

Wednesday night, when we had a 4.5 rated aftershock, many people updated on Twitter, despite it being just past one o’clock in the morning. Twitter, from the first few seconds of the quake, lit up with posts. If you doubted what you were feeling and seeing, Twitter and the community using it around you, provided validation (right; that shaking is not a train going by).

Mashable reported 40,000 earthquake-related tweets within the first minute. 

People in New York, far from the quake’s epicenter in Virginia, read tweets a full 30 seconds before the quake was felt where they were.

Twitter is an excellent vehicle for fast-moving news. If you’ve resisted joining and using the platform for any reason, this should convince you to give it a try.

React and Respond: Letters to the Editor and Online Comments Get the Job Done

By Public Relations

One of the more eye-opening moments I had as a young PR intern had to do with letters to the editor. A naive idealist, I thought all letters to the editor (LTE) were written by earnest citizens, penned by hand and mailed with a stamp. While some surely are (I hasten to add, for you, the Easter Bunny believers), many are not.

Now, all LTEs are signed by earnest citizens. All are sent by or delivered to publications by those putting their money and hearts behind the sentiment in the aforementioned letters, but LTEs are often suggested, originated, drafted and refined by people just like me: Public Relations professionals.

Publications worth their salt (or the paper on which they’re printed, in the case of those who still follow this process), follow up with those who have signed the LTEs and ask them to verify that they, indeed, have lent their name to the letter and the words within are theirs.

(Am I really telling a trade secret here? Or are you all nodding the head bob of the cynical with me?)

Today almost everything printed or broadcast is also found online, allowing for a faster reaction and response and, fortunately the speed-of-light submission of e-mailed letters to the editor and of course, the online comment, appearing just below the original article, to which the comment or letter reacts.

It’s a gift to the PR industry, actually, to be able to respond so thoroughly and quickly in this way. The opportunity for a client to correct misinformation in a very visible way, or to defend itself in a public forum is extremely valuable and clients always appreciate the opportunity and support to get the job done.

Chiming in is important, and it’ s been part of my job for more than 15 years to monitor the news on behalf of my clients and alert them to opportunities to react and respond. My favorite of these are those that offer controversy, stir up emotion or even allow for a crisis to potentially be averted. Few activities in the PR practice are more fun for me than crafting the crisis message and response. The current speed of news is the most challenging to stay on top of, but I enjoy watching and listening, and making the recommendations to get into the conversation when it’s appropriate for my clients to do so.

Have you ever written a letter to the editor? Is this information news to you?

Tornado Hits St. Louis Airport: When Crisis Communications Training Pays Off

By Crisis Communications, Media, Public Relations

We woke up to reports of a tornado hitting Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. It’s hard to look at footage of a place so familiar, a home-away-from-home in my former home. The devastation to the area is still being uncovered in the daylight this morning. The airport is closed, they’re saying, indefinitely. The economic impact of that is difficult to calculate but will no doubt, be years in recovering.

The footage of passengers being evacuated to the safer, lower levels of the main terminal are amazing; everyone seems calm, there’s no shoving or panic in evidence, even while in the background, it appears scenes from the Wizard 0f Oz tornado are playing through the windows. The shot of a Southwest jet moving away from the jetway in the wind is hard to believe. From an outside perspective, and based on the fact that no one was killed in the crush and damage of the storm, it appears that the airport team is to be commended. Without airport employees training for crises like these, conducting drills and managing consistently to keep up with continuing education, it would be almost impossible to manage a crisis of this magnitude with the speed and efficiency required. From all I’m seeing on TV and online, this crisis was managed as well as could possibly be expected.

I’ve been in the main terminal at Lambert many, many times. I’ve flown in and out of St. Louis probably more than 50 times. That main terminal is made of a lot of glass. Reports say that more than 50 percent of the windows are broken and blown out. It will take some time to clean up and restore the airport to safe, working order.

Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, the airport’s director, is in a role she hoped she’d never have to assume, as the spokesperson for an airport hit with catastrophic damage. I just watched her in an interview aired on CNN. She’s handling the crisis communications beautifully and very quickly had Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Charlie Dooley on the scene. It was touching when, as the CNN reporter asked the airport’s director at the close of the interview, how she felt about the tragedy. Hamm-Niebruegge smiled but was visibly choked up and said, “It’s sad. It’s just sad.”

Our hearts go out to the people in St. Louis affected by the storms; many homes have been damaged and lost — it may be a long time before St. Louis recovers from this Easter weekend.