A Fraternity Responds to a Tragedy

I called my father 13 years ago to let him know I was planning to pledge a fraternity. His response: “Don’t become a statistic.”

At Cal State-Fresno this past weekend, we saw coverage of the kind of event that leads so many parents to say similar messages to their sons. Regardless of the circumstances of the death of Philip Dhanens, a Theta Chi Fraternity pledge, it’s certainly a tragic event and a blemish on the reputation of the Greek system, Cal State-Fresno and Theta Chi Fraternity (full disclosure: I am also a Theta Chi).

Theta Chi has responded to the event with this statement:

The thoughts and prayers of the members of Theta Chi International Fraternity are with the family and friends of Philip Dhanens. Our deepest sympathy is with them during this difficult time.

Theta Chi Fraternity has a strict anti-hazing policy, and strict guidelines for chapters which prohibit underage alcohol consumption. Theta Chi Fraternity has dispatched senior representatives of the international organization to Fresno to assess the situation. The Fraternity intends to fully cooperate with local authorities and the administration of California State University, Fresno, to find out exactly what happened, and to determine what course of action to take next with respect to the local chapter. Based upon the preliminary details reported to our International Headquarters office, the CSU Fresno chapter was suspended by the Fraternity on Saturday.

What does this statement do well?

  • It expresses sympathy without laying blame. We aren’t sure about exact details of Philip’s death yet, but we know it was a tragic event and I’m sure that everyone is sorry that it happened. It’s sad that organizations have to think this way, but sympathy is a heartfelt sentiment that avoids any legal implications (i.e. accepting responsibility).
  • It lets the public know the Fraternity has policies against hazing and underage drinking. We still don’t know if Philip chose to drink too much or was forced to drink too much, but we know he wasn’t old enough to drink legally. That means that if Philip consumed alcohol at the fraternity house under any circumstances, this Theta Chi chapter did not abide by Fraternity policy .
  • It explains what the Fraternity has done. Senior Fraternity representatives have been sent to Fresno to assess the situation and the chapter involved has been suspended. This lets people know that the Fraternity is actively looking into and reacting to the situation.
  • It makes clear that the Fraternity intends to cooperate with authorities. This lets the public know that the Fraternity wants to be part of making sure events like this aren’t repeated.

What is the statement missing?

  • Details. Theta Chi needs to establish itself as an information source on this event. ┬áThe statement doesn’t mention anything about what happened and that information needs to be available through the Fraternity. The Fraternity leadership needs to communicate proactively and become an information source to build credibility — something fraternities often lack in these situations.
  • History. What has the Fraternity done in the past to prevent hazing/underage drinking? What has the chapter done to prevent foul play? Policies are great, but how is the Fraternity proactively enforcing them? I know for a fact that the Fraternity headquarters sends out representatives throughout the year to consult with leaders at every chapter across the country, but there’s no mention of that here. That information needs to be out there and it needs to be prominent.

What does the Fraternity need to do?

  • Be honest. There can’t be any cover-ups here. Every bit of information Fraternity leaders and members have needs to be out there. If the chapter was involved, it needs to be held responsible and all actions taken need to be made public.
  • Be human. Let’s be real here — a young man is dead. No spin, no BS, no dodging responsibility.
  • Be visible. The local chapter can’t simply hide in the fraternity house. Fraternity leaders and chapter members need to be involved in communicating about what happened. Not communicating simply creates a vacuum of information and if the Fraternity isn’t providing the information, someone else will.
  • Be patient. No one can jump to conclusions yet. It’s tragic that a young man is dead, but let’s not punish other young men until we’re certain how and to what extent they were involved.
  • Change up its website. The Fraternity was right to add a link to the statement on its home page, but it may want to edit the scrolling photos on the top of the page. Yes, it’s good to publicize the accomplishments of other Theta Chi chapters, but maybe the last thing a friend or member of the Dhanens family wants to see is a photo of a bunch of smiling Brothers from another chapter front and center on the Fraternity’s website.

Personally, I’ll say that the experiences I’ve had as a Theta Chi Brother have been wonderful and have positively affected the relationships I’ve had throughout my adult life. I continue to believe in my Fraternity’s traditions and ideals. I express my sincerest sympathies to the family and friends of Philip Dhanens and I hope that, through the actions taken in responding to his tragic death, events like this will be prevented from happening again.

The Physics of PR: Newton’s First Law of Crisis Communication

Confession: If I could work in any field other than communication, I’d want to be a physicist. I mean, if there were a fantasy world in which my mathematical clumsiness were not an issue in a field like physics, I would totally be a physicist.

Anyway, I opened up my old physics book from college and while thumbing through it I realized that there actually are some similarities between physics (minus the math) and public relations. So, I’m going to explore the physics of PR from time to time here. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I live to make analogies, so here’s my chance to do that for everyone to see.

First analogy: Newton’s First Law of Motion. Now, if you remember, Newton’s First Law states that any body will tend to stay at rest or maintain a constant velocity until it’s acted upon by another force. So, if you roll a marble across a table, it theoretically could roll forever. It doesn’t because forces of friction and air resistance act upon it. Eventually, it stops, and once it’s stopped, it isn’t going to move again unless something makes it move.

Think about it: That’s crisis communication. As we all know, effective crisis communication begins long before a crisis actually happens. That’s called reputation management. You help create a positive reputation for your organization by maintaining good relationships with stakeholders, being open about your operations, effectively communicating key messages, etc. So, keeping with the example above, your organization is the marble. As you communicate outside of crisis and manage your reputation, you begin rolling your marble and gaining momentum. Theoretically, that momentum could last forever. When your organization experiences a crisis, that’s when the friction and wind resistance begin acting upon your marble. See how it works?

Now here’s the thing: The more momentum you have going into a crisis, the more difficult it is for the crisis to stop your organization’s operations. Remember, not all organizations survive crisis situations. Your existing reputation going into a crisis can help you survive.

So – and I’m not claiming to be a great writer of laws here – we could say that Newton’s First Law of Crisis Communication states that an organization that actively practices reputation management is more likely to maintain its reputation, resist the negative forces of a crisis and maintain its operations than an organization that does not practice good reputation management. Perhaps not the best wording, but I don’t think we need to go so far as to put it to a vote or anything (chuckle).

Many thanks to Khan Academy for a) being awesome and b) teaching the world about so many things. I’ll be relying on Khan Academy for these posts to give more in-depth explanation of the physics concepts. I barely understand the stuff anyway…

Back to School

So, I’m about to head back to Chapel Hill to give a lecture at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’m lecturing on my thesis, which was a case study on crisis communication in the Air Force.

I decided to use Storify to mix it up a bit. I think we’re all getting tired of PowerPoint for everything. So, my initial draft is below.

Now, this is meant to help the students prepare for the lecture, so I intentionally left some things out. I know they are supposed to read my whole thesis, but it’s almost 150 pages with appendices and I know the students just aren’t going to read that. So, below is the draft, with a few holes in it. I’m going to add in the rest tomorrow before the lecture. I thought it’d be fun to see how it changes after tomorrow.

For now, if you have an opinion on the presentation, let me know. Enjoy!

Lost Missiles and Lost Messages