In a situation that seemed to go from 0 to 100 very quickly, last Monday University of Missouri Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, and system president, Tim Wolfe, resigned as escalating protests over racism and bias incidents began to paralyze the campus. Protesters, angry at what they believed to be an inadequate response from Wolfe to their concerns, demanded his removal with a hunger strike, boycotts, and finally the football team refusing to play. Campuses aren’t exactly like corporations, but there are some good lessons for PR professionals and business leaders in general to be learned from what unfolded over the last few days.
Unacknowledged Conflict Tends to Explode
We don’t have any special insight into what Wolfe was thinking when he responded to reported racial conflict on campus in such a low-profile manner. It might have something to do with the fact that Wolfe is a former software company executive who wanted to run the university like a business. It could be that, in an effort to shield the institution’s reputation from the sting of an acknowledgment of a serious problem, he sought to downplay it.
Certainly every executive and PR pro should seek to protect the reputation of the brand, but as we have seen time and time again, it is a bad idea to do so in a way that makes customers, or in this case students, feel unheard. These kinds of conflicts don’t go away if they are covered up. As we’ve seen in this case, they tend to blow up.
Sometimes We Have to Talk about Difficult Subjects
It isn’t easy to talk about race in America. Dispassionate discourse is almost impossible and avoiding the subject can seem like a really good idea. But situations like this remind us that we don’t always get to choose the direction of the conversation. When one’s words or actions around a charged issue like this one are destined to become public knowledge, a deft and thoughtful hand is essential. University PR teams and leadership all over the country should be huddled up talking about how they will address racial issues on campus and in the media.
The Power of Social Media is Gargantuan
Just in case you needed one more reminder about the power of social media these days, keep in mind that the fates of Mr. Wolfe and Mr. Loftin were sealed with a tweet. The team tweeted a picture of the student athletes linking arms. "We are no longer taking it," the tweet said. "It's time to fight." Granted the tweet came from a group of people who were in the position to financially hurt the university to the tune of at least one million dollars by forfeiting a football game, but it is telling that Twitter was the media they chose to convey the message. They, like everyone else, didn’t need to call a press conference or talk to a reporter. They simply took their message to the public. We all need to accept that the media landscape has changed forever and adapt to this new reality.
We hope that the events of over the last few weeks can lead to a period of healing and reflection for the Mizzou community. Situations like these give those of us in the business of shaping public opinion a lot to think about as well.
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