If the announcement sounded vague and a bit cryptic, perhaps that was by design. But anyone with even a passing knowledge of the news in Charlottesville knew what DMR Adventures was talking about when it said that, “due to developing and extenuating circumstances,” it was moving its student production of “Broadway at the Paramount” from Saturday, August 12 to Friday, August 11.
Matt Charles, who at the time served as deputy university spokesperson for the University of Virginia, was in the audience that night. His wife was producing the show and had invited three Broadway actors she knew to perform with the students, who sang and danced to “Get Happy,” “Get on Your Feet,” and “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
The show was concluding when Charles received the first text: White supremacists and neo-Nazis, who had scheduled their “Unite the Right” rally for the next day to protest the impending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a downtown park, had begun their protest a day early and were marching with flaming torches toward the university’s hallowed lawn. Shouting “You will not replace us” and “Jews will not replace us,” they clashed with antiracist demonstrators near Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda.
“I was horrified that this could happen,” says Charles, who teaches crisis communication and grassroots communication in the Master’s in Public Relations & Corporate Communications program at Georgetown University and is a former special investigator for the City of New York. “But given today’s climate and my experience in law enforcement and communications, I should not have been surprised.”
The next 48 hours would be trying ones for Charles, the university, and the nation as a whole. Charles and his colleagues in the communications office dealt with more than 100 emails an hour from frightened parents and news organizations from around the world. Soon, they were working round-the-clock shifts to answer as many questions as possible and try to separate fiction from fact. When the weekend ended, there were numerous injuries and three people were dead: including a young counter-protester, killed when a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of demonstrators near the Downtown Mall; and two Virginia state troopers who died in an accidental helicopter crash while they were monitoring the situation.
An Essential Skill
What Charles was doing that night in 2017 is called crisis communication, a subset of the communicator’s job that is becoming increasingly necessary, whether they are based in academia, the corporate world, government, or the nonprofit sector. The explosive growth of social media, the COVID-19 pandemic, the deepening political divisions across the country—all of these things have increased the chances that a significant part of any communicator’s job will be navigating a crisis.
Sometimes, the crisis is precipitated by the organization itself, as when a corporation must recall a defective product or a public official makes a gaffe. But just as often, the organization and its leaders are more like innocent bystanders: The crisis comes to them.
UVA created the position of deputy spokesperson in 2015 after dealing with two high-profile, off-campus situations in 2014, including the murder of an 18-year-old student last seen at a downtown restaurant, and an alleged gang rape at a fraternity house party that was the subject of an extensive Rolling Stone magazine exposé. After discrepancies in Rolling Stone’s account were cited in the national media, the magazine concluded that the story was a hoax and retracted the article in its entirety. It later settled a lawsuit filed by the fraternity for $1.65 million.
These are wrenching events for any university or organization to go through. But if anything positive has come out of these experiences, Charles says, it is that they underscore the critical need to elevate the communications office to the cabinet or C-suite level, those places where decisions are made, policies formed, and reputations protected.
“It’s demonstrated the need to have crisis communications, to actually take it seriously, to budget for it, to plan for it, and to have the resources available,” Charles says. “One specific thing to look at is the importance of internal communication. So, when it comes to a crisis, make people within the organization know what’s going on, so they are not confused.”
An ‘Action-Oriented’ Course
In Charles’ course at Georgetown, students learn the techniques of crisis communication and how to use them to plan for and respond to crises and protect and advance an organization’s reputation.
“The course is very action-oriented,” Charles says. “There’s going to be some theory, but a lot of it is practical exercises, like: ‘How do you engage your stakeholders? How do you write a crisis plan? How do you work with an organization? How do you respond post-crisis? How do you take care of yourself?’”
That last question cannot be overlooked, because none of this is happening in a vacuum. It takes an emotional toll on everyone involved.
“One of my lectures, both for grassroots and crisis communications,” Charles says, “is wholly dedicated to letting people talk about their experiences and how to take care of one’s mental and physical health. These sessions can be very cathartic.”