What We Can All Learn From the Campus Sexual Assault Crisis

by Nancie Poppema

In the universe of things that can irreparably damage an organization’s reputation, there are few that rival a campus sexual assault crisis.

A revelation of unaddressed or mishandled campus sexual assault allegations is a high-stakes, high-profile threat to an institution’s future. And how universities respond to these crises offers valuable lessons for organizations far beyond the world of higher education, including corporations, industry, government, and NGOs.

The violations of trust, the failure to protect vulnerable populations, the appearance of negligence or even cover-up, and the heartbreaking stories of survivors place these crises among the worst challenges any organization can face. These qualities also make campus sexual assault a remarkably vivid example of an institutional crisis, creating lessons learned that corporate leaders can apply to any crisis with the potential to damage a company’s reputation and its ability to do business in the future.

Indeed, the ongoing wave of campus sexual assault scandals sweeping the nation is creating a wealth of useful case studies. Unfortunately, most of these are studies in how not to respond in the face of a crisis.

From Baylor and Stanford to Penn State, we have witnessed a depressingly predictable pattern of cover-up and denial, followed by a slow release of information, attempts at blame shifting, and finally reluctant changes to policies and procedures. The pace at which these events unfold is typically driven by external forces such as outside investigations, lawsuits, and activist media organizations.

In the end, you do not benefit from this reactive approach. You have effectively handed over control of your organization’s destiny. To avoid this loss of control, you need to get in front of a crisis. Or better yet, preempt it.

A few universities are managing to avoid this destructive pattern. They’re doing this by being proactive, examining their own organization’s broken culture, and focusing on “doing the right thing” at all times. Especially in difficult times. If you aren’t familiar with any of these “success stories,” that’s partly because the institutions’ actions have kept them out of the headlines.

The way that these universities have preempted a crisis and preserved – or even enhanced ­– their reputations can be used as a blueprint for almost any leader facing a similarly dire threat to their own organization’s future.

The story of a university we recently counseled to follow this different path serves as a good example of how to take control of your destiny and reputation. This path initially seems difficult, and runs counter to the natural instincts of almost any organization facing a situation that threatens their reputation on the most fundamental level. As this case illustrates, however, it is the best hope for protecting your reputation over the long run. It is also the best way to effectively, fairly, and humanely protect the interests of everyone with a stake in the outcome of a crisis.

The Revelation

Our client came to CCA while preparing for what they thought would be a routine NCAA Title IX investigation. They had been randomly selected, and didn’t anticipate any problems. The university’s General Counsel, however, wanted to review the three years’ worth of materials they had provided to federal investigators “just in case.”

Unfortunately, this mountain of files, reports, and other documents contained some horrifying information. During that three-year period, there had been approximately twelve reported assaults that should have gone through a disciplinary review with probable action taken. Of these twelve cases, it appeared that nothing had been done in any of them.

The Reaction

When the General Counsel briefed the Board of Regents on their discovery, the regents were outraged. They saw this as much more than just a devastating revelation for the institution. Regents are human, after all, just like corporate board members, and they were deeply disturbed by the stories they heard. The idea that nothing had been done for these victims hit them on a very personal level.

Stunned, the regents demanded immediate action. They wanted heads to roll, and they wanted a public flogging for everyone from the Dean of Students – who should have started the disciplinary process – up through the Chancellor.

Members of the administration team claimed to have no knowledge of the unaddressed cases. The evidence told a different story however, and it was clear that their inaction was either purposeful or the result of incompetence. Either way, they had failed to live up to their obligation to protect students, and through this failure had put the university’s reputation in grave jeopardy.

The Response

This is where our client’s actions, with our guidance, took a dramatic turn away from the harmful path followed by many organizations facing these reputation-threatening challenges. Before the Title IX review was finished, before any findings were released, and before there was a crisis, they took control of their own destiny using a proactive approach that included the following activities.

Assemble a Crisis Management Team

The first step was the formation of a Crisis Management Team (CMT), which is what we recommend whenever an organization is in the midst of a crisis, or has a crisis looming on the horizon. In a large-scale, rapidly unfolding situation like this one, the CMT should be established in hours or days. Not weeks.

It’s important to remember that this team is responding to a crisis, and not just an incident. While an Incident Response Team (IRT) would include the people needed to address the practical aspects of a near-term event, a CMT should be made up of leaders with a compelling interest in the long-term future and viability of the organization. That means that the team’s 5-7 members should include the most senior leaders from the affected parts of the organization, as well as a representative from the legal department, the head of corporate communication, and an outside crisis consultant.

The attorney should be there for input and guidance, and should not be driving the process or serving as the public face of the response. Similarly, the outside consultant can provide valuable experience with similar crises and the ability to “see around corners,” while letting the organization’s leadership maintain internal and external ownership of the crisis.

As mentioned earlier, in this case the university benefited from the presence of a skilled and forward-thinking General Counsel’s office, which gave the leadership team room to handle the crisis with an eye toward “doing the right thing,” rather than focusing on minimizing the threat of future litigation. This isn’t always the case, however, and CMT participants should always be wary of considering the courtroom at the expense of the court of public opinion. We often remind clients that an organization is more likely to survive the loss of a lawsuit than the loss of its reputation.

Seek to Fully Understand

The CMT’s first goal is to fully understand the nature and depth of the crisis. You need to be your own investigative reporter and dig deep into your organization to seek out all of the facts, whether you like them or not. Avoid the urge to preserve “plausible deniability,” and make sure that none of your organization’s leaders are kept in the dark.

In this case, the university immediately launched both internal and external audits, and also cooperated fully with Title IX investigators as they explored the depth of the crisis.

Rather than falling into the trap of “paralysis by analysis,” you should be continually looking for ways to preempt a crisis, even as this fact-finding effort proceeds. As soon as issues are uncovered, take immediate steps to fix past mistakes and improve current responses, knowing that these procedures may evolve further as the process continues.

Set a Strategy and Theme

By establishing a theme and strategy for the crisis response, the CMT can create focus and maintain a level of consistency in the response’s development and execution.

This theme is not just a tool for framing language about the response. It should be used to evaluate the appropriateness of every strategic or tactical decision. It should be specific enough that it can be used in this type of evaluation, and also high-minded enough that it will resonate throughout every phase of the crisis response.

In this case, the university’s CMT committed to building their response around two related themes: “focus on the student” and “do the right thing.” Once these were established, we looked at every aspect of our work through this lens.

Fix the Past / Act in the Present / Prepare for the Future

While it’s not always possible to “fix the past,” there are often ways that organizations can mitigate the damage caused by past mistakes or inaction. These might include compensating affected parties, addressing environmental impact, or imposing consequences on particular individuals.

Publicly accepting responsibility for mistakes is also a critical – and difficult – part of this process.

In an example that many organizations can learn from, the university client was one of the first institutions to take full and unequivocal responsibility for a sexual assault crisis. They apologized first to victims and other students, and then to the public, earning praise for their forthright approach.

The university also took additional steps to correct past wrongs for some of the recent survivors. They reopened previous cases that should have received a disciplinary hearing, regardless of whether they believed the hearing was likely to lead to a resultant action.

Steps to address the present and future are often easier to define, although they can still require a great deal of leadership fortitude to carry out. The university acted in the present by dealing with current reports or complaints swiftly and rigorously under the new policy. To prepare for the future, they assigned clear responsibility for the ongoing handling of incidents, looked for the root causes of the problem, and took steps to make sustainable changes to the institution’s culture.

Analyze the Scenarios

Analyzing best-case, worst-case, and most-likely scenarios can be an important tool for establishing the scope of a crisis and formulating a response. Looking at these potential outcomes gives members of the CMT a better understanding of who will be most impacted by the crisis over the long term, and the immediate actions they can take to minimize these effects.

Scenario analysis is a place where the team’s outside crisis consultant can contribute particular value. Their experience with other similar events and their outsider’s perspective can help the team maintain a realistic and rational outlook, while also ensuring that they don’t overlook any potential outcome.

The university’s CMT envisioned a best-case scenario where all past and present survivors would receive justice, alleged perpetrators would receive a fair hearing, there would be no Title IX findings, a scandal would be avoided, and policies and procedures could be changed to eliminate the risk of future assaults.

In the worst case, they imagined the survivors being re-victimized by hearings and investigations, justice not being done, the beginning of a series of scandals accompanied by ugly protests and outrage, and an actual increase in campus sexual assault by emboldened perpetrators. They also considered the possibility of lawsuits filed by Title IX, survivors, and students; the withholding of state funding; the removal of students by concerned parents; and even the eventual collapse of the institution.

Their picture of the middle ground included some findings from Title IX, negative media coverage, more cases coming forward as awareness increased, some protests on campus, and changes in policies and procedure that might be difficult to sustain.

This type of analysis benefits any organization that has to consider the impact that a crisis will have on diverse stakeholders. In the university’s case, laying out these three paths helped them to create an implementation roadmap that steered well clear of the worst-case scenario. They have actually come out of the crisis ahead of what they initially saw as the most-likely result, with generally positive media coverage, minimal campus protest, the support of parents and the legislature, and what have so far been sustainable changes to their administrative culture.

Identify and Prioritize Stakeholders

The CMT can then use the scenarios to identify and prioritize stakeholders. By establishing stakeholder “tiers,” this critical process enables the team to create a detailed plan for communicating information about the crisis. Tier 1 stakeholders, for example, should be the focus of intense, open communication during the heat of the crisis.

In the university’s case, the stakeholder list was extensive, ranging from survivors, students, and parents to employees, state officials, and even the general public. Survivors and other students were viewed as the highest-priority stakeholders, and were the first to receive every communication from university leaders. The university also invited these top-level stakeholders to play an active role in the response to the crisis, enlisting them as partners in the creation of a safe campus environment.

Hunt for the “Allegators”

Next, the team can search for the “allegators” associated with each stakeholder group. We created the term allegator by combining “allegation” and “alligator.” It describes the reputation pitfalls that can sneak up and bite you if you aren’t ready for them, damaging your credibility in the eyes of stakeholders.

At the university, one example of an allegator was “you care more about athletics than you do about the safety of female students.” In the corporate world, a similarly powerful allegator might be “you care more about profits than you do about your customers,” or “your lax approach to pollution controls shows disregard for the environment.”

It’s important that the CMT find a way to address the point of the allegator, rather than focusing on a word-for-word answer to a particular question that might be asked about it. The objective here is to find and address real problems, as opposed to creating and rehearsing slick responses.

Along these same lines, focus only on the allegators that include at least a kernel of truth, as opposed to wasting resources worrying about false accusations. When you begin to communicate openly and offer a high level of transparency, the falsehoods will generally take care of themselves. You should also remember, however, that many of these will have some truth to them. Make sure that you are viewing each of them with an open and unbiased mind. Look beyond your perception and find the truth.

Fast Forward Five Years

We encourage the members of a CMT to take a step back and imagine how they want the response to be remembered in five years. The university’s CMT identified a desired memory of “They acted quickly to ensure a safe environment, and they cared about the students.”

The CMT can then combine this goal with all of their previous findings to create a roadmap outlining the steps the organization should take in the coming weeks and months. This roadmap will create an opportunity to preempt a crisis or limit its severity, and will help ensure that the organization comes out of the situation with its credibility and reputation intact.

The Implementation

With their strategic approach and long-term goals established, the university turned to fully implementing their response to the crisis. Like most organizations that successfully weather a crisis of this magnitude, their tactics included communicating and cooperating with stakeholders, making cultural and structural changes within the organization, and making some very tough decisions about how to move forward.

Establishing Partnerships

Leaders often think of stakeholders as the individuals or groups that need to be addressed as part of a crisis response. In truth, however, they can also play a role in the response itself. For example, you might need leeway from a regulator in order to implement a new system, assistance from the media in disseminating critical information, or help from employees and vendors to change company culture.

The university worked hard to turn stakeholders into partners. They proactively sought guidance from Title IX investigators, asked a sister university to adjudicate current cases, and actively sought students’ help. They went to student meetings, held town halls, and partnered with student groups. Throughout this process they listened, worked with the students to develop programs, and sought to incite a movement across campus that would not tolerate anything less than a caring and safe culture.

Communicating with Stakeholders

Keeping key stakeholders in the loop and ensuring that no one is ever blindsided by news is essential to maintaining continued support for the crisis response. This makes it crucial that all communication be rolled out in accordance with the priority levels of the various stakeholder groups. You need to coordinate the timing of every piece of communication so that a stakeholder doesn’t receive secondhand information from a lower-priority stakeholder. No employee, for example, should find out that the plant is closing via social media.

In this case, we guided the university through the creation of a matrix that detailed the timing, message, and delivery method of all key stakeholder communication. Survivors and then students were identified as the highest-priority stakeholders, and they received every communication first. This included the previously mentioned apology and admission that the university had not done what it should have in the past, along with a promise that it was going to change.

Making Tough Decisions

The university’s path through the crisis was not easy. The same leadership culture that facilitated the initial failures of the system also fostered a reluctance to acknowledge mistakes and make significant changes. (Sound familiar?) Luckily, the members of the CMT – with the support of the Board of Regents – were committed to doing the right thing. When some administrators expressed a hostility to change, or an unwillingness to acknowledge past mistakes, they were replaced by new leaders who were up to the challenge.

These tough decisions are a common component of an effective crisis response. That is one of the reasons for staffing the CMT with the organization’s senior leaders. The internal response to a crisis doesn’t always have to involve “scorched earth.” It does, however, almost always require the strength to challenge longstanding practices and well-established organizational culture. Acting quickly and decisively is the best way to rebuild confidence in the organization and ensure that a broken culture doesn’t allow the crisis to reoccur.

A Reputation Protected

In working with the university, our ultimate goal was to help them protect – and even enhance – their reputation. That’s because when it comes to reputations, universities are no different than corporations. Their reputation is their lifeblood, and if the reputation is damaged, they can lose students, lose the trust of parents, lose the ability to recruit top-notch professors, lose donors, and lose appropriation support from the state legislature. In much the same way that corporations can lose customers, top-notch employees, shareholders, and the trust of regulators.

Our core belief about protecting, maintaining, and rebuilding a reputation is the same for universities, corporations, and every other type of organization. Any group facing a crisis needs to resist the natural temptation toward stonewalling and damage control, and instead find the way to “do the right thing” in tough times. Of course, we also counsel clients to act before there is a crisis on the horizon. Every organization should examine its actions and interactions now in order to establish a culture of openness and accountability, and ensure they have a plan in place to communicate with stakeholders using those principles.

Some may bristle at the idea of the university’s reputation being the highest priority. After all, shouldn’t the safety of students be the most important consideration? We would argue that when your approach to protecting your reputation is based on doing the right thing, these are inextricably linked. A reputation for protecting students and fostering a safe environment has to be earned, and will only withstand scrutiny if it mirrors the reality of the university’s culture.

Placing the emphasis on reputation and credibility ensures that an organization does more than just make the short-term procedural changes that will get it through today. It encourages the organization to combine those immediate responses with comprehensive cultural changes that will protect the organization – and therefore its reputation – long into the future.

In an example that illustrates the ideal first reaction to virtually every crisis, the university quickly and unblinkingly focused on its own failings. By doing this, the university gave itself the ability to fix a broken culture, protect its students, and come out on the other side with a reputation for standing up for safety and integrity.

Their experience offers a valuable lesson for all types of public and private organizations. That lesson is that proactive, open, and honest communication can give you the ability to control your own destiny and protect your reputation, even in the midst of a potentially credibility-destroying crisis. And just as importantly, by creating a culture of openness and accountability – and living that culture every day – you can prevent most crises from ever occurring.

Nancie Poppema is the President and CEO of CCA.

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