Did you catch Rusty Speidel on CBS-19? So much of the ousting and reinstatement of UVa President Teresa Sullivan has been about the public relations efforts that accompanied the story. Rusty provides commentary on the story as the Newsplex shares the latest poll confirming Sullivan’s approval rating. Watch here.
I’m concerned. The whole situation with the ouster of UVa President Teresa Sullivan by, among others, Board of Visitors Rector Helen Dragas has turned into one of the biggest PR headaches I’ve ever seen a university battle. And then . . . news that Dragas has hired PR firm Hill + Knowlton to represent her and “burnish” her image was released.
As a PR professional, is this a job my firm would take? Hell, no. We’re firmly in the camp of taking only clients who agree to be transparent; who have a prayer of repairing damage done; who agree to and act on recommended counsel.
That being said, witnessing how Hill + Knowlton is handling the work concerns me further. Evidence of their counsel, thus far includes:
- A letter to the editor published by Dragas’s sister; not an entirely credible source in mending the Rector’s reputation.
- Some suspected blog lurking and commenting from unidentified sources offering support for Dragas, sometimes out of context.
- A terribly written statement (that was, later, translated into plain English by Waldo Jaquith, underscoring the lack of clarity and, yes, SPIN, the firm is attempting).
I’m puzzled over how a firm could allow their client to walk, unescorted from the Rotunda to her car at 3:00am, facing media and protesters and enabling this:
“As reporters urged Dragas for comment, she replied, “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.” — as reported in The Hook
A responsible firm with a client in this kind of crisis should be glued to her side for the duration of the engagement. I can’t imagine letting a loose cannon like that out of my sight for a minute.
Come on, Hill + Knowlton; either have the guts to fire an indefensible client or bring your A game and get her to do the right thing. You’re giving the public relations industry a bad name.
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.”