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A General Counsel Provides Counsel on Crisis Communications

Maria Feeley, chief legal officer for Washington and Lee University, has seen her share of crises, at Washington & Lee as well as Rosemont College, the University of Hartford and Florida A&M, where she’s worked or served on boards. Think about whether you’d like to be faced with any of these:

  • A social media firestorm attracts the attention of Van JonesAl Sharpton and others and is fodder for MSNBC.
  • A stabbing takes place on campus – on accepted students day.
  • A student dies after a shooting – on homecoming.
  • Title IX and NCAA investigations.

“The array of issues that can come at you and turn into something that you didn’t expect,” Feeley says. “Within hours. There’s a lot of things to think about when you’re trying to avoid or successfully manage a crisis.”

Feeley talked with Gina Rubel, of Furia Rubel Communications, about that and a lot more in a wide-ranging conversation featured on JD Supra.

We’re going to talk about crisis communications today. I’d like to know is how you define crisis or define what is a crisis for your institution and some of the types of crises you’ve had to manage.

In my experiences, crisis and reputational management issues come in all shape, sizes, and flavors. They each have a unique set of circumstances around them, but they can each have an equally devastating impact on reputation, brand management, and relationships with key stakeholders. They can result in, a firestorm or even, what can be a more damaging these days is a social media storm. I’ve been in various roles, I currently chair a college board and have been outside counsel and inside counsel to various institutions from an elite liberal arts college with a $2 billion plus endowment, a large public HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to  a university with seven different colleges, and a more modest under $200 million endowment. Then I chaired the board of a small school that’s been around for a hundred years but doesn’t have anywhere near those resources.

One thing I’ve realized is that none of those institutions are immune to crisis, and there’s so much overlap in the types of situations that they could face and, and what they can do to prepare. Some examples at one of the institutions, I was there in my first year with a new president and there was a horrific viral internet story. The hashtag was justice for jazzy. I won’t go into the horrific details of what one first year student did to another. Twitter was angry and rightfully so and we were being tweeted at, by Jesse Williams, Van Jones, Al Sharpton. We were on MSNBC every night for a while. That was followed by a Title IX lawsuit involving a division one athlete and coach, which gets more attention when you’re talking about D1 athletes.

Then we had a stabbing on our campus during accepted students day.

Not only do we have our normal population, but we had all the visiting high school seniors and their parents during a lockdown with the police trying to find the perpetrator. We had an NCAA investigation and negotiated public resolution, which you can also read about. After a while, I was the athletic director, the department thrived, we had our men’s of all teams first ever NCAA tournament appearance. as a reward, a few months later, the board voted to go from D1 to D3. There’s now a federal lawsuit pending and relentless media coverage. So, that’s just one institution’s array of issues that you’ve got to manage. When I was at an HBCU, at my first public board meeting, they fired the first female president in the institution’s history a year and a half into her contract. Two days later, most of the cabinet was separated from the institution.

A few months later, there was a shooting at homecoming resulting in the death of student followed by a football concussion lawsuit.Even at the small liberal arts college, right outside Philadelphia, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, I oversaw a presidential search where we selected to hire the first male president in the history of the institution that until 10 or so years ago was all female. As you can imagine, some people understood the decision, but a lot of alums needed some careful attention in communication. The array of issues that can come at you and turn into something that you didn’t expect. Within hours. There’s a lot of things to think about when you’re trying to avoid or successfully manage a crisis.

Did you ever think that media relations, social media management, brand management, reputation management, would play such a big role in the practice of law?

Gina Rubel: What’s fascinating as both lawyers, we deal with reputation, manage crisis communications, and litigation communications. I can’t tell you how many lawyers don’t appreciate the importance of those issues and don’t understand the language of brand management. There’s so much opportunity to add value to the services corporate law firms provide as outside counsel by understanding how these issues interplay with everything.

What should be the role of General Counsel’s Office at time of crisis?

Hopefully, you’ve figured that out before the crisis. It’s not just as a GC sitting with my board chair hat on. Whenever you get involved at a high level or C-level position or board level governance position with an institution, you’ve got to do an assessment first. You’ve got to figure out what talent is there and who is going to be able to be on the team to successfully navigate through these reputational issues. You might inherit a great team with pros that have connections to the media that know how to talk to the media, or you might inherit a very green team. You might have a first-time president or a first-time board chair or your PR office might not be local. You might have somebody that came from another state, and they have great contacts in Wisconsin, but they don’t have any in Georgia where you might be located.

You can read the rest of their conversation here.

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