Crisis Communication During Large-Scale Events: Planning Vs Reacting
Tuesday, April 16 ~ 3:00-4:00pm (Eastern)
Participants will understand that there are many audiences affected when controversy occurs during the program. Each audience views the controversy through a different lens, reacts differently and has different information and developmental needs. Each audience requires a different form of attention.
The challenge of communicating to multiple audiences effectively and in a timely manner while trying to manage the crisis itself all without a plan.
Purdue University’s Welcome Week, Boiler Gold Rush (BGR), serves upwards of 7,500 students. During BGR 2018, immediately following student monologues about vulnerability, students were to be entertained by a comedian/illusionist during the final closing event. While interacting with female members of the audience, the entertainer proceeded to make comments and actions that many members of the audience found to be offensive. The orientation leaders began to demand that the entertainer is shut down and to encourage their students to leave immediately. Students became even more upset that Purdue administrators did not shut down the speaker. News of this event spread rapidly to students, emergency responders, parents, and faculty members and media outlets. Purdue staff at all levels spent the next 24 hours doing crisis communications; building a response plan on the fly.
About 15 minutes into the comedian’s act, students began to express their distaste by refusing to participate and walking out. At this time, Purdue administrators in the audience gathered to discuss whether to end the performance early, as well as how best to respond to student reactions.
Administrators, after connecting with the student who was affected by the act, agreed that the show did not need to be stopped because the offensive bit had ended. After the show, Dan and Craig met with the more than 100 BGR team supervisors (experienced student leaders) to apologize and say that the Orientation Programs team shared the students’ surprise at the performer’s conduct. Later that evening, Dan began to draft an email to Purdue’s provost and other university leaders, including a Purdue marketing and media administrator, which contained a summary of the event and reactions. While drafting the email, Dan received an email from Purdue’s Chief of Police, who had received inquiries about the event from an Indianapolis TV station. At this point, administrators realized that the story was spreading broadly. The marketing and media administrator provided an initial written statement to be used as the basis for email responses, as well as on social media, which had become quite active with the hashtag #AndyGrossIsGross alongside students’ descriptions of and reactions to what happened. Dan was on a phone call with marketing and media, as well as the lead of Purdue’s Parent and Family Connections unit, until about 2 a.m. discussing how to respond to parent inquiries. By the next morning, Purdue had developed the following statement and provided it to inquiring media outlets:
“On Saturday night, a comedian performed as part of our BGR student orientation closing session. Accounts differ as to what exactly happened on stage, but some portions of the performance were clearly inappropriate and contrary to the university’s values of respect and support for all. We will not work with this comedian again and are proud of our students who are standing up and voicing their concerns about the performance.”
We also drafted a longer apology letter* and emailed it to approximately 7,000 BGR student participants. Finally, Craig drafted a separate email and sent to all BGR team supervisors and team leaders that expressed remorse over the comedian’s performance, but also praised the way the student volunteers expressed their personal values and set a strong example for the incoming class.
One of the most significant takeaways from this experience is that responding in a timely manner and using consistent messaging is key. Several Purdue administrators were up until the early morning hours of the following day reflecting on the event and drafting a public response. Because the university’s statement was finalized shortly after the event, nearly all of the major media outlets that reported on the comedian’s performance contained at least part of Purdue’s statement, which also was shared broadly on social media.
- Reflect on their event planning and consider how they will handle crisis communications
- Assess their own ability to balance the demands of university leaders against those of their student leaders who are the face of the university in a crisis
- Acquire some insight into the complexity of addressing multiple constituencies in a crisis
- Student Affairs Leaders
- Orientation Professionals
- Communication Professionals
- Student Services/Affairs staff
- Event Managers
- Any educator interested in learning more about crisis communications
“I’m in Teen Vogue!”
Dan Carpenter is the Executive Director of Student Success Programs at Purdue University. He retired from the US Army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2008. His final Army assignment was as Chair of Purdue’s Army ROTC Program. He was attracted to student affairs work because of its similarity to his career in the Army spent training, developing, supporting and leading young adults and managing complex organizations.
Craig Johnson is the Director of Orientation Programs at Purdue University where he oversees the operation of programs that introduce over 8,000 students to campus each year in one-day, virtual, and welcome week formats. With a background in conflict analysis and resolution and facilitation, he has extensive experience in presenting content in a variety of settings for students, staff, and higher education professionals.
Andrea Mattingly is the Communications Director of Student Success Programs at Purdue University where she develops and coordinates communication strategies for eight intersecting student support departments. In her previous career as a newspaper reporter, she honed skills such as storytelling and multimedia development. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in creative writing and a Master of Science in Technology from Purdue. In addition to her role with Student Success, Mattingly instructs an introductory communication course on writing for the mass media and media relations.
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