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In a Time of Crisis, He Helped His School Come Out Ahead

Posted At: April 9, 2008 12:23 PM
by Taryn Ely

The phone rings loudly. You sit up suddenly and look at the clock: 1:30 a.m. You wonder who on earth could be calling you, and when you pick up the phone you find out it is not a call you wanted to receive. You quickly get dressed and head to your office to begin a very long day of crisis management.

These were the first actions of Bill Wagnon in the early morning hours of March 8, 2006. As vice president of communications at Birmingham-Southern, Wagnon is a member of the school’s Emergency Response Team. He was one of the first members of the team called when two BSC students were arrested for burning nine churches in west Alabama.

“I met with our chief of campus police, vice president for students affairs, dean of students and assistant to the president,” said Wagnon. “The first thing we had to do was make contact with our president, Dr. David Pollick, who was 1,000 miles away in New York City.”

The joint task force consisting of the FBI; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; and State Fire Marshal’s Office notified the school’s officials that they should have a response ready for a press conference to be held at 2:00 p.m. that day.

“While the situation was a shock to us all, we were fortunate in that we did have a little time with which to work,” Wagnon said. “President Pollick’s immediate thoughts were, ‘We’ve got to rebuild those churches.’”

With that thought in mind Wagnon began to work on his crisis communication plan. The main message would be to ensure the members of the burned churches that the college would rebuild the churches with their own resources.

“Our response had to fit our history and our mission,” Wagnon said. “It was imperative that we get across to all audiences that these acts of arson were not indicative of Birmingham-Southern or its students or its alumni.”

On the afternoon of March 8, President Pollick read a response the emergency team had drafted. Pollick’s response assured audiences that the students had been suspended and banned from campus. Additionally, he expressed his condolences for the members of the communities who had been affected and pledged that the entire college community would aid in the rebuilding of the churches.

“We had a message we wanted the world to hear, and the media came to us,” said Wagnon. He explained how local and national media outlets, both television and print, expressed interest in the story and the school’s response. Wagnon’s plan was to appear very transparent, allowing Pollick and selected students to speak freely to the media.

“By opening our campus, with restrictions, to the media, we were better able to give our response, tell our story and allow them to see the type of institution we are and the type of students we have,” said Wagnon. He feels that the media attention the school received portrayed it in a positive light and facilitated the spread of his message.

After Wagnon’s immediate responses, he took care to implement long-term public relations tactics to manage the crisis. The school stayed active in media relations as money began to be donated to the Alabama Churches Rebuilding and Restoration Fund. In addition to financially contributing to the rebuilding effort, Birmingham-Southern sent faculty and staff volunteers to worship with the effected congregations. Pollick also made presentations at higher education conferences to further represent the school’s image.

The team desired for the communication plan to highlight Brimingham-Southern’s image as a premier liberal arts college with a history of service to others. Wagnon was satisfied with the plan as he felt that the communication team was able to do just that. The team effectively communicated the college’s image to faculty, students, alumni and others through both publications by other sources and publications by the school itself.

“Our pledge to help rebuild the churches gave them a story of hope in a time of despair,” said Wagnon. “This is what Birmingham-Southern is about.”

What would your response be to the public relations issue created in this situation? Was it handled correctly?

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