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  • Writer's pictureL. Darryl Armstrong

FAU and Rutgers – How Not to Handle a Crisis

Organizations faced with crises such as the recent ones at universities can and should use a “holding statement.” This is a tool that allows the organization a brief limited amount of time to assemble the parties involved, gather the facts and determine as much about the evolving crisis as possible all within a few hours prior to making another public statement. 

Strategic communications planning and mind-mapping messages could have in both of these situations provided a more comprehensive and “common sense” approach to the situation had they been conducted in advance. In cases, the universities’ “punishment” evolved and changed as more facts of the case were discovered, or more “heat” was placed on them by the media, alumni, the community and state officials.

In the Florida situation the professor, who is now on administrative leave for his protection now says that he is a devout Christian, that he never told anyone to actually “stomp” on a picture of Jesus and that the student “threatened him” at the end of the class session and the student and others who witnessed this event should have been separately interviewed (crisis investigation) for their sides of the story prior to making or announcing any decisions about “punishment.” If this investigation occurred it is hard to discern from the punishment, which has been reversed and from the statements from the university during the evolving crisis.

This investigatory approach provides the best information available from those interviews to the President and Dean, who ultimately must make the decisions. By the way, we have yet to hear anything one way or another from the FAU President.

The latest information from the professor is that he “took this exercise from an instructor’s manual,” yet this nugget of information comes weeks later in a follow-up article. Such information as his devoutness toward Christianity, his use of this manual, and the alleged threat against him by the student could have been revealed in a crisis investigation.

A good reporter following this story would most assuredly ask: “Why a picture of Jesus and not Buddha or Mohammed or Joseph Smith, for that matter?” So, this question also should have been a part of the interview process.

The lessons learned from such behaviors as this is not that hard to decipher: intercultural courses, which are potentially controversial in this day and time anyway should be thoroughly reviewed in advance by the crisis team as to what exercises will be used The findings from this analysis should be a part of the strategic crisis communications planning and mind-map messaging process in crisis planning at the university, especially if such a potentially controversial exercise will be conducted.

It also would be prudent to advise all the students before engaging such an exercise that they can opt out and suffer no consequences from that decision. Neither of these tactics curtails academic freedom, at least not in my book as a former adjunct professor.

Yes, such an approach requires a crisis management team to be engaged, advised, informed and willing to take the time to explore all such possible crises during advance crisis planning yet the outcome can be significantly beneficial to all parties.

As it is, FAU suffers now from a major crisis miss step and continues to be national news with the infamous Bill O’Reilly and his producers at Fox News touting their success at getting this issued resolved.

Whether they did or not, when a university hits the national news with such an issue it can’t mean anything but continuing problems, bad PR and public perception until it is resolved or some other university comes up with another crisis.

Now, about that holding statement. An empowered, thoughtful and experienced crisis management team would most likely issue immediately a “holding statement” such as this:

“We have just learned of this issue as of (insert time) today. We are thoroughly investigating this situation including interviewing all parties identified to ensure we have a complete understanding of the facts of the situation before making a decision on how we will handle this. The student’s and professor’s accounting of the situation along with others, who may have witnessed the incident, will be taken into account in any decision we make. I am sure that you can understand that we want to understand as much about this situation as possible and that you will be patient with us. We will be issuing a statement this afternoon at (insert time) when we expect to provide you a more detailed and further update. Thank you.”

At the very least, this “common sense” response makes it clear that the university is serious about getting an investigation underway quickly, gathering the necessary facts, and seeing all sides are considered in making any decisions.

This statement should go out immediately to the traditional and social media and posted prominently on the university’s web site.

It might even behoove the University’s President at this late date to step forward and acknowledge that the situation was not handled well and that the university has learned the following lessons (and then articulate them). Frankly, it wouldn’t hurt for the President to apologize to all parties and the public even now. If I were a regent at this University I would be insisting on this.

The public, students, parents, the community and the alumni can be forgiving when a statement is sincere and humble and well intentioned.

Just as Ward Churchill made the University of Colorado infamous for the wrong reasons; FAU now has some claim to such fame.


In the situation at Rutgers, the university officials obviously thought that a few games suspension and a fine would satisfy everyone. I hope all athletic directors and coaches that watched this tragedy unfold and how the poor handling of the crises led to the coach’s firing learn something valuable from this incident.

Perhaps, prior to the Jerry Sandusky fiasco at Penn State and the massive hue and outcry by the public over bullying, a university could get away with this type of “punishment” — not any more.

Mike Rice’s verbal and physical abuse of his players is fully documented on video tape. It can’t be denied or excused. Punishing such behavior by game suspension and a monetary fine simply won’t sit well with any parent and for that matter should not sit well with any of the players. There is no way other to see this behavior than “bullying” by a person in a position of authority.

As this situation evolves, we will provide further details and analysis, suffice it to say at this juncture, Rutgers officials the handling of this crisis is another textbook example of what not to do. The above information on using a holding statement to get a crisis investigation underway applies here.

#Mindmappingmessage #crisisplanning #Holdingstatements #Crisisinvestigation #Crisismanagement #Strategicplanning

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