The Ohio State University has found itself in a bit of an embarassing predicament lately: It turns out University president Gordon Gee took some jabs at Catholics and schools in the SEC. Even though President Gee is a remarkable fundraiser for the university, he recently announced his “retirement,” though most people I’ve spoken to here in Columbus believe he was strongly encourage to resign. This comes on the heels of violations in the athletics department, which resulted in the football team forfeiting games and a post-season ban.
Suffice it to say, it’s a challenging time for Ohio State. Though, without question, the university still has a strong brand, (even if it does have a couple “dents” from recent challenges). It’s a nationally recognized research institution. Students graduate and go on to make meaningful contributions in a variety of sectors. Athletes — most of whom stay out of trouble — represent the university well, on and off the playing field. The school is a supportive community partner. So, how can the university overcome these gaffes? Is it as simple as letting time pass? Or, can proactive PR accelerate the process, putting these mistakes in the rearview mirror and returning focus to more positive features of the university?
Based on my experience helping a few different groups through high-profile leadership changes, here are a few opportunities for PR to support the transition process and help the organization come out stronger:
- Pick a leader, not a persona. The board needs to tread carefully when picking the next leader. Gordon Gee, known for his bow ties, high energy and magnetic personality, was (is) beloved by the community. Should Ohio State symbolically turn the page with a president more reserved than President Gee? Or, should they pick another big personality who donors, staff and students will easily gravitate toward? Instead of being consumed by personality, the University’s board needs to evaluate its goals. What are the priorities? Knowing that, what skills and talents does the next president need to possess to achieve those objectives? Go back to the hiring basics. Hire the best person for the job and the university community will rally around him/her.
- Implement a leadership visibility campaign. Once the new president is in place, it’s time for a road trip. And, not just to raise dollars. Take the president on the road, but also bring some researchers and/or amazing students — people who provide demonstrable evidence that the University hasn’t missed a beat. As I said, President Gee is beloved, so the new president has some large shoes to fill; however, it’s doable. The president should be highly visible in the local community, with alumni groups around the country, and at key conferences and similar events where this person can help Ohio State repair its reputation.
- Actions speak louder than words. Whether you think Gee’s recent remarks were enough to warrant a “forced resignation,” his remarks weren’t the best representation of Ohio State. And, the athletics department has had its share of missteps recently as well. But, you can’t dwell on this mistakes. In any situation, when a mistake happens, three immediate steps must follow: Admit it. Own it. Move on. How can the university move on? Show me, don’t tell me.
- Show successes. With more than 60,000 students and 465,000 alumni worldwide, the university is bigger than the president … and the athletics program. It’s full of success stories. Now is the time to tell those stories. Ramp up visibility. By showing achievements and contributions from students and professors through a strategic, proactive PR campaign, the University can begin to rebuild trust and its reputation.
- Embrace digital communication. Is this vital to the president’s success? Probably not. But, it can’t hurt. Provide behind-the-scenes access to the broader community by having the new president truly embrace social media (and not just in the staffer-posting-on-my-behalf kind of way). Let people know that the new president is hitting the ground running, establishing relationships with key stakeholders, while also taking time to listen to concerns and ideas from people who may not typically have a seat at the table. Through the new president’s social channels, highlight student successes. Show photos of the new president in the community. Be willing to answer questions — even the tough ones. Social media can demonstrate the new president’s intention in a way that will rebuild trust and garner goodwill.
People in Columbus feel a sense of trepidation. Has the University’s reputation been tarnished? What can we do to fix it? A smart public relations initiative can be critical in helping the University regain its solid footing and convey the positive stories unfolding every day on campus.
These are just a few ideas … what else would you add?