Sigma Alpha Epsilon Makes Smart Crisis Communications Move | Media Training
Yesterday, a video featuring members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma was posted showing them singing “There will never be a NI@&(insert worst racial epithet ever) in (our fraternity).”
Within just a few hours, the national fraternity’s board gave the Oklahoma chapter its death penalty. Here is the statement put out by the national fraternity on closing the fraternity:
“With no mental reservation whatsoever that this chapter needed to be closed immediately.”
The national president also said this, according to the New York Times:
“I was not only shocked and disappointed but disgusted by the outright display of racism displayed in the video,” Mr. Cohen said. “S.A.E. is a diverse organization, and we have zero tolerance for racism or any bad behavior.”
I will leave it to others to debate whether Fraternities are good things or whether they are inherently racist, sexist, outdated institutions. What I am interested in here is how the national organization reacted during a time of crisis.
My assessment: SAE reacted perfectly from a crisis communications standpoint. They assessed the situation quickly, on a Sunday. They made the correct judgment that you cannot defend the indefensible when it comes to something as definitionally racist as chanting “There will never be a ni@$&r in SAE.” (Not a lot of ambiguity there) The national chapter reasoned that if the local chapter is going down, there is no reason for bringing the national organization down with it. The national SAE added a definitive statement disbanding the local chapter. Furthermore it gave statements condemning the local chapter’s actions in harshly moral terms.
Now, the national SAE insulates themselves from the damage of this PR fiasco. National SAE makes it harder for others to criticize it as a racist organization, given that the national group severed ties and condemned the local chapter quickly, before there was any national push to do so.
What any good crisis manager knows is that there are some issues where you cannot “spin” pr “win” or “massage” through the media. All you can do is distance yourself as quickly and thoroughly as possible and as seemingly by your own will. And if you do that, the crisis will not destroy you. And that’s what SAE national did perfectly yesterday.
TJ Walker is a crisis communications consultant. You can reach him at Media Training Worldwide at 212.764.4955