How Not to Communicate in a Crisis

Screen shot, Washington Post
Screen Cap, The Washington Post

There’s quite the tempest going on at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. And they don’t seem to be handling it well.

The school’s president has been essentially ousted by the Board with seemingly no notice and little explanation. Apparently she was well respected by the faculty and popular with students and everyone is fairly dismayed.

The story broke on Sunday and I received an email from one of the deans about 24 hours later — an eternity in Internet time. Thus the unfortunate opening, “By now many of you will have heard …” I recognize that personnel matters are highly sensitive, but putting your people so far behind the eight-ball really does them, and the audience they’re trying to reach, a disservice.

To make matters worse, the email offered up very little in the way of new information. Just links to a couple of official statements from the university and some diplomatic statements of support for both the departing president and the board’s decision-making.

I generally believe that you should always communicate something during a crisis. Even in the absence of information, you can at least explain that you don’t have a lot of detail but you’re working on it and will come back with more when you do. But in this case, if you really do have nothing at all to say, why bother?

There could be something more going on here that nobody outside the parties involved know about. Time will tell. But if this was a decision that was in the works for some time, the least they could have done was prepare their own people to talk about it.

No doubt the people handling this (or trying to get a handle on it) are under a lot of pressure and are constrained in what they can say and do by an army of HR people, lawyers and assorted short-sighted nabobs. I know — I’ve been on the inside of a crisis or ten in my career.

But this is kind of a big deal. The last president served 20 years and Sullivan’s tenure was apparently the shortest of any president in the university’s history, which goes back nearly 200 years. I can just imagine the frenzy going on within those hallowed serpentine walls.