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PR and Branding Lessons from the FAMU Band Crisis

July 24, 2014

Florida A&M University is emerging from the tragic hazing death of a Marching 100 band member in 2012. The university has a new president in place, the prosecution of the students involved in the hazing death is nearly complete, and the Marching 100 is back in business under a stricter no hazing policy. The tragedy was a tumultuous period in the band’s history as a highly acclaimed band and for a university that was unprepared to be hit with a crisis of this magnitude. While FAMU did its best as it could to manage during this period, the reality is that it was a PR nightmare that crippled the university’s brand and reputation among students and alumni, stakeholders, and prospective students.

As the university turns a new page and reemerges, there are valuable communications and branding lessons that other universities could learn and implement from this crisis.

1. Always be ready. You can never predict when a crisis will hit, and when (not if) it does, regardless of the severity of the crisis, your organization must be ready with a well thought out course of action. There must be an internal and external communications strategy and a chain of command already established pre-crisis.

2. Seek expertise. Many universities have one or two individuals on its staff managing the marketing, communications, and PR efforts for the entire university, and it is usually not proactive. To put it in perspective, organizations of the same size and operating budget usually dedicate an entire marketing department to manage its brand. For this reason, universities should have an external marketing agency and/or crisis communications counsel on standby on an ‘as needed’ agreement. Universities should not rely on its staff managing all of the communications efforts during a time of crisis, and that was the mistake of FAMU. They weren’t prepared to immediately deploy outside expertise, and when they finally did the damage to the brand was long done.

3. Reputation management is everything. Your brand is everything and if left at the hands of media and the court of public opinion, your brand can be shred into pieces in no time. FAMU knows this all too well. Because there wasn’t a crisis plan in place prior to the tragedy, the university could not keep up with the onslaught of media reports and negative news. While it may seem impossible due to the speed that media hits the public thanks to social media, it’s important that an organization manages its brand, and that means keeping a balance of positive news to balance out the negative.

4. Fix the problem. Many organizations are so blinded by the crisis itself that they never use it as an opportunity to actually fix the problem that led to the crisis. Take this as an important for business improvement. Crisis only helps to make an organization stronger and better prepared. FAMU took its crisis as an opportunity to implement a university-wide anti-hazing campaign.

5. Ride out the storm. Time heals all wounds. Sometimes an organization ends up doing more harm than good simply because they’re too on edge. This is usually the result of an absent crisis communications plan. Preparation is key and it shows in your handling of the crisis. Ultimately, FAMU had no choice but to allow time and the legal system to take its course. While suspending the band for a year was a tough pill to swallow, it allowed time for healing and for a stronger plan to be whipped back in action.



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