Cal Lecturer ‘Why I am not canceling class’ email: Communication Coup or Faux Pas?

Fineman PR has long provided issues management and crisis communications services to universities and educational institutions throughout the country, so I read with great interest the recent Cal Berkeley math lecturer’s email that is now going viral. In just a few days the email was viewed 92,733 times on Imgur, a site showing the day’s most viral images, and it is making the rounds on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.

In a nutshell, union employees of the University of California’s nine campuses, including UC Berkeley, were set to strike last Wednesday. On Tuesday night, lecturer Alexander Coward sent a 2,000+ word email to his students proclaiming he was teaching class as per usual – effectively “breaking” the strike – as well as two classes taught by his striking graduate student instructors. The message he was sending was not meant to be anti-labor in substance; rather, he used the email to espouse the value of college education and impart life lessons to his very talented and bright students about the role they play in the future of our world.

His action was motivated out of concern for his students and his intentions appear to be noble. However, from a communications perspective, it’s a good reminder to educational institutions of the potential for the “unofficial” communications of a faculty or staff member to quickly spread beyond what anyone intended or anticipated. So far, the public response to Coward’s email has been largely positive, but some have begun to question his social consciousness.

There are other instances, though, when an individual’s opinions can be perceived as the voice of the employing organization – and contrary to fact or organizational values – which can quickly result in reputational damage. In those cases, our counsel to education clients past and present:

  • Student (staff and faculty) safety, welfare and wellbeing are your top concern.
  • Communicate with all potentially impacted audiences (students, faculty, staff, administration, parents, alumni, board members, as appropriate) openly and forthrightly with the organization’s position on the issue. Demonstrate a tone of care and concern.
  • Get all bad news (if there is bad news) out at once.
  • Provide the facts and what the organization is doing to address the situation.
  • Do not engage in rumors, speculate or place blame.
  • Do not repeat the charges.
  • Quickly correct any misinformation to keep it from flourishing.
  • Keep audiences updated with new developments and actions.
  • Establish new policies/protocols, if appropriate.

In addition, social media policies vary by organization. When communicating under a school email, social handle or via school website communication, be clear about whether you are speaking in an official or personal capacity.

This isn’t #SFBatkid  in stature, but in the case of Cal, this viral email is mostly resulting in goodwill toward the teacher and the university.

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