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March 11, 2011
Preemptive PR Can Matter Greatly
 
Whether you agree with their religious position or not, you've got to credit the editorial board of the student publication, The Optimist, at Abilene Christian University for the advice they've provided to other Christian schools on preemptive PR: Practice it,  unless you want to seem plagued by misfortune. 

It's always good to be out there with your story first, not to be seen in a reactive, defensive posture. So it was recently, say the Abilene student journalists, with Harding University, a Christian school in Arkansas, when it found itself embroiled with sexually different former Harding students. The former students published an online magazine describing their experiences at the school and Harding, oh my, blocked the website and provided a brief explanation of its action to the media only after it was asked about it. (The university had provided a statement in its chapel the day after its action against the website.) Meanwhile, the former students' views were picked up by "the New Yorker Blog, Jezebel and The Huffington Post , among many others." And the school appeared hidebound.

Shame. When you're involved in a controversial situation, typically the best thing to do is to get out in front and explain your position before you need to be asked about it. That's good crisis communication policy. Thinking in terms of how you'll look in your own press release can be a great communication discipline.

Or as The Optimist's editorial board puts it, "Private institutions, especially those with a religious affiliation, have every right to construct policies regarding Internet use and to outline what behaviors are not in line with the universities’ overall mission. The regrettable aspect of Harding’s situation was the universities’ (stet) slow response to the issue, which was mostly reactionary and allowed the discussion of Harding, its policies and the larger Christian college community, to be dictated by the publishers of the online magazine.

"The school’s blocking of the site with little explanation to the outside public only gave credence to the picture that was being painted of Harding as bigoted, ignorant and anti-homosexual. The general public does not have to agree with the decisions or the policy, but the lack of public relations work by Harding allowed those outside the university to absorb a one-sided view. This not only taints Harding’s reputation, but also the reputation of the larger Christian college community at large."

Give those kids an "A" in public relations awareness. 

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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