How To Handle PR Crises In Greek Life

by Matt Mattson

This year the fraternity/sorority world has seen more than the regular amount of PR crises. Sexual Assault. Racism. Hazing. Major media stories have dominated the Greek Life landscape this year, and the response to those stories by the fraternal and university leadership has really run the gamut of excellent to amateur.

The fraternity/sorority world does not have a single spokesperson. A couple people/associations are close, but really nobody is charged with speaking on behalf of Greek Life, and therefore nobody ever does. If we had a “Czar of All Things Greek,” what would she have said publicly in the wake of the UVA/Rolling Stone crisis? What about the recent Oklahoma SAE debacle?

The way we handle crisis says a lot about us. As individuals and as organizations. When we offer partial apologies, when we try to re-direct attention elsewhere, when we try to make ourselves the victims (especially when someone was seriously hurt), when we send our lawyers or lobbyists out to represent us, when we say, “yeah that was bad, but don’t forget we do a lot of community service;” these make the problem worse.

When I studied Public Relations in college, one case study on how to handle crises from a PR standpoint struck me and stuck with me. It is probably the most cited crisis-related PR success story in history. Tylenol 1982. That link goes to a classic examination of the Tylenol case. Here’s the gist: Tylenol was one of the most trusted brands in America. Suddenly people in the Chicago area started dying from taking the product. Turns out some terrible person had been lacing Tylenol with cyanide, resealing the bottles, and putting them back on the shelves. Johnson & Johnson, the makers of the product, acted quickly, boldly (the pulled a top grossing product from every shelf in America), and made important changes to keep this from ever happening again.

In response to the recent Greek Life scandal at The University of Oklahoma, the president of the institution released a statement that is an excellent model for the first step in responding to crises in the fraternity/sorority world. Unfortunately our organizations have plenty of idiots in them, and those idiots will make us all look bad. Statements like this one offer direction on what to do.

Be clear. Be emotional. Be vulnerable. Be angry. And take action.

OU President David Boren released a statement Monday morning:

To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.

David L. Boren
University of Oklahoma

Fraternities and sororities have rough reputations. Those reputations have been earned by our brothers and sisters, albeit only a small percentage of them. Even though it wasn’t US. Even though we hate those members who have made us look bad. Even though we want to hide under a rock or distance ourselves from those idiots who tarnish our name, we must… MUST… take responsibility for our brothers and sisters, apologize (not “apologize to those we might have offended” — say “I’m Sorry. We were wrong.”), and come up with at least one thing we will do to make things better — hopefully a bunch of things — and put a timeline on it.