Last Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced that federal prosecutors would seek the death penalty against Boston Marathon bombing suspect and former UMass Dartmouth student Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
I was in Boston when the highly anticipated news broke, listening to a CASE DI Conference presentation by John Hoey, Chief of Staff for UMass Dartmouth Chancellor Divina Grossman and the Assistant Chancellor for Public Affairs. The timing of his presentation and the Tsarnaev ruling was completely coincidental, but it made John’s story even more timely and, for lack of a better word—“real.”
John was one participant in a panel of four Boston college representatives who recounted crisis response and lessons learned in the minutes, hours and days following the marathon attack—but the crisis he experienced was much different than the others, and it came a few days later.
What UMass Dartmouth underwent was a true “media crisis.” No students, faculty or staff had been hurt in the attack, and their response in the days following the bombings was similar to that of other, mostly unaffected institutions across the state. That all changed when the main suspect in the case was confirmed to be a UMass Dartmouth student. However, with the exception of a precautionary and controlled evacuation during the early stages of the manhunt, UMass Dartmouth’s most critical issue was the worldwide media attention on the institution.
Unprecedented in higher education, John’s story was both fascinating—and for those of us who work in higher education media relations and public affairs—slightly terrifying. The sheer numbers of journalists on campus, phone calls, voicemails, information requests, social media comments to monitor, and hits to the website in situations like this are enough to overwhelm even the most even-keeled, seasoned veterans. But, because today is a Monday and because this winter seems never-ending, I want to focus on the positive today—on one point in particular that often gets overlooked and underappreciated when it comes to crises: Recovery is possible.
John said it multiple times during his remarks, and he’s absolutely right. If you manage a media crisis well, if you do what you can to assist journalists in their jobs despite the limitations of FERPA (which became a big issue at UMass Dartmouth as evidenced by this Boston Herald cover), if you understand and appreciate the pressures reporters are under in situations like this and help accordingly, they will reciprocate.
John forged many important relationships with influential reporters, editors and producers at some of the country’s premier media outlets because he returned phone calls, responded to questions, treated media with respect, and provided access and information whenever possible. Because of that, many media outlets returned to campus months after the bombings for “where are they now” feature stories, all of which portrayed the institution positively and highlighted the good work of its students, faculty and staff. Nearly every outlet that came to campus when Tsarnaev was arrested came back to cover Commencement, and beyond that John now has a direct line to media decision-makers when he has positive news to tell.
No one wants a crisis, but if you have to endure one, you might as well focus on the silver lining, no matter how thin and inconsequential it might seem. Try to remember that the next time you’re dealing with a crisis, big or small. Recovery is possible.