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PR Lessons Learned from UVA’s Grief Trajectory

As with any major loss, PR disasters are followed by their own stages of grief: Exasperation, Investigation, Supplication, Cynicism, Reservation, and Speculation. Just ask the University of Virginia. You’ll recall, the president of that school, Teresa Sullivan, was forced to resign amid concerns about tuition, curriculum, and other issues facing colleges and universities across the nation. The secretive way the situation was handled raised many eyebrows.

The ouster and then reinstatement of UVA’s president has become a PR training manual on public relations meltdowns. Nevertheless, for UVA, the healing process has begun, and the time is right for an analysis of just what happened from a PR standpoint.

Exasperation: PR experts proselytize the importance of managing change and keeping the public informed. UVA’s now vilified board of directors did neither and as a result shocked the campus and nation with the news that Sullivan had been unceremoniously voted out of her position resigned. This exasperated anyone who had a connection to the landmark school, and soon had them asking, “How did this happen?”

Investigation: The torches were lit and passed around and thousands marched toward campus demanding a formal investigation into how such an injustice could have occurred at an institution that values honesty and excellence above all else.

Supplication: UVA’s board of directors had to humbly petition the public to exercise restraint and understanding as they attempted to explain how such a breach of trust could occur. At this stage, blame is thrown around like rice at a shotgun wedding. A public relations low point.

Cynicism: PR experts know that trust is difficult to create, and even more difficult to rebuild. As UVA named an interim president to fill a power vacuum and buy time to implement a PR strategy, the public had already made up its mind that the board of directors was, at best irresponsible and, at worst, at odds with the school’s values.

Reservation: As time passes and PR strategies emphasizing a renewed commitment to transparency, fairness, quality control, and mutual forgiveness begin to take hold with the public, feelings and perceptions evolve, and a state of wary acceptance ensues as the past is relegated to the past and everyone sighs deeply.

Speculation: A renewed commitment to core values becomes an uplifting call to rally around as players from both sides of the PR disaster once again are united by higher principles. What was PR triage becomes PR rehabilitation as speculation about the future inspires public perception to shift its focus to the potential and challenges in the road ahead.

Note: UVA’s board of directors voted unanimously to reinstate Teresa Sullivan as president (see Supplication above).

[image: Steve Helber]

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