Ashley McCownAshley McCown

The job of a college or university president has never been an easy one, with multiple concerns and constituencies to manage and balance. Today, more so than ever before, sensitive issues and crisis management are demanding a great deal of top administrators’ time and attention across the landscape of higher education.

From calls for sanctuary campuses to transgender rights, and from campaigns demanding an endowment’s divestment of fossil fuels to union organizing efforts, the concerns are numerous, complex and often overlapping. This web of student activism, government investigations and other reputational minefields have combined to thrust higher education into the spotlight. These hot button issues have taken hold in both traditional and social media where they are amplified, facilitating a robust, nation-wide dialogue.

O'Dwyer's Jan. '17 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications MagazineThis article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '17 PR Buyer's Guide & Crisis Communications Magazine

For schools, the degree of difficulty communicating around these issues is steep and complicated by numerous factors. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act means a playing field which is rarely level and where the rules of engagement are far from clear. Students can get away with hurtling accusations and insults at an institution, while the institution’s hands are tied, restrained by student privacy concerns and an obligation to take the moral high ground.

This is why, whether an institution utilizes in-house or external communications and legal counsel — or both — it’s critical for the two to work hand in glove to protect their mutual client. What’s at stake is just as varied and as complicated as the issues themselves: student/public safety on campus, admissions and donations, lawsuits and potential loss of federal funding.

There is an age-old — and I would say now outdated — perception that PR pros and attorneys are often at loggerheads because the former wants to be proactive with the media while the latter wants to “kill” any statements out of concern that they will come back to bite the school in court.

Having worked side by side with dozens of attorneys over the years, I can say more often than not, we find common ground. From that experience, here are some insights and tips for how PR and legal counsel can work together to protect their institutions in the court of public opinion and court of law.

Develop, deliver a narrative consistently

Institutions need to tell their story and not be defined by what critics, students, faculty or alumni say. That starts with creating a written narrative, approved by legal counsel, which can be drawn from when communicating with key audiences and updated over time.

The narrative should capture what the institution has done in the area of concern, what changes or improvements have been made and the impact of those changes. Use every opportunity to deliver that narrative to the college community across multiple channels: social and traditional media, email, and town halls.

Preserve attorney-client privilege

The strategies and messages that are developed with legal counsel can end up in the hands of a reporter or on Twitter if not properly protected. The best course is for the outside law firm to retain the PR firm/practitioner who should then cc attorneys on all emails with the institution and note “Privileged & Confidential” in the subject line.

While labeling them so does not, itself, make an e-mail privileged, the attorney will have a stronger case in protecting that confidentially in the event of litigation or an investigation where the emails are subpoenaed.

Beware of legalese

Words that make for a strong defense in the courtroom (e.g. “contributory negligence”) rarely win the day in the court of public opinion and in fact can backfire on the institution. Simply show PR counsel court filings or complaints before they are made public so they can identify problematic language and ensure that, depending on the situation, the school communicates with the press and relevant audiences with empathy, sincerity, trustworthiness and, above all, transparency.

Anticipate key dates and milestones

Will court filings or rulings happen right before Parents’ Weekend or graduation and trigger media coverage? The legal team should keep the PR team informed of key dates so there can be a communications strategy and messages in place. Similarly, if federal investigators are going to be on campus to review files and interview staff, the communications team needs to know in advance so they can consider how to manage internal communications.

The reputational threats facing colleges and universities today are fast-moving, can divert the leadership’s focus from core functions and also strain financial resources. That’s why navigating these situations requires advance planning by a cross-functional team working in unison. Get buy-in early and understand that the communications strategy devised at the outset, and approved by legal counsel, should be flexible and nimble enough to respond to rapidly and ever-changing developments.

It’s PR’s job and legal’s job, jointly, to stay on top of these issues, to be proactive and to continually assess and reassess the risks to best protect the institution.


Ashley McCown is President of Solomon McCown & Company.