Case Study: Grambling State University
Grambling State University
(October – December 2013)
MARKETING / BRANDING CHALLENGE
In mid-October 2013, the vast majority of the Grambling State University football team did not show up to board the bus to Jackson State University for that school’s homecoming, setting off a media firestorm that brought a slew of publicity to the school. It was an unprecedented move by the players, one that re-engaged much of the sports world with a former football powerhouse that once regularly sent players to the National Football League. Now, the team was refusing to play.
National headlines focused, almost exclusively, on what was described in many of the reports as deplorable and unsanitary conditions that were a threat to the safety of student athletes. The university response was uneven, at once saying the reports were overblown and then later acknowledging to Outside the Lines that the condition of the weight room used by all student athletes was a “liability issue.” Unwittingly, Grambling was thrust into the larger debate over the general treatment of student athletes, including the discussion at much larger schools about whether intercollegiate athletics, by its very nature, exploits student athletes.
While this crisis was exploding, the university initially fired two student journalists from their posts on the Gramblinite, one for participating in a public rally that was covered by outside news media and another for using official Gramblinite accounts for tweets detrimental to the University. This caused an immediate uproar among journalism groups and others concerned about the First Amendment rights of students. In a matter of days, the university was the center of attention for two negative narratives. And in both cases, the public relations battle was not tilting in the university’s favor.
SRB Communications was hired in late October to help Grambling chart a path forward that would allow it to be better prepared for future crisis situations, regardless of the topic. It is a reminder that in the midst of crisis, it’s always better when the key stakeholders – Grambling administrators, alumni, students, and the University of Louisiana System – speak with one voice to advance common goals and objectives.
Going forward with purpose requires that everyone in leadership understands that their mission is to inspire and raise the aspirations of students and prospective students. This involved healing internal rifts that exist on the leadership team. When it comes to messaging, there must be a clear chain of command throughout all University vehicles. And that needs to come through the professionals paid to do messaging, with the assistance, of course, of the leadership team. A single message was imperative as Grambling faced several threats including potential sanctions against the nursing program, closer oversight by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and a decision in the ongoing desegregation lawsuit involving Grambling and Louisiana Tech University that could result in significant restructuring of Grambling’s lab schools.
Another major challenge was changing the minds of prospective students, high school teachers and principals, and alumni who may have lost touch with the University and think that it may no longer be the gateway to their dreams. This is a fixable problem. Every day at Grambling, dreams are coming true in the classroom, on the athletic fields and in the band room. Grambling must once again take control of its story from a crisis that has momentarily taken on a life of its own. The time came to change the current narrative and it required some serious work. As with any communications plan, it meant little if those responsible for implementing did not follow it when a crisis arises. So it became imperative that everyone was aware of the crisis management plan, their responsibility and where the potential threats to the University lurked. SRB Communications provided crisis communications services for the client and a Crisis Communications Plan, not a blow-by-blow account of what happened, but rather a blueprint for establishing policies that allowed the university to quickly respond to any future challenges.