Tuesday Tip-Off: Former University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill

Being dragged into any political firestorm offers little potential for upside. When the controversy is as volatile as the Israel-Hamas war, you are likely faced with a no-win conundrum. Controlling the damage may be the best you can hope for; you certainly don’t want to say or do anything that makes matters worse. If you do you, responding quickly is imperative.

Former Penn State President Liz Magill, whose testimony last week before Congress sparked a social media riot and calls for her resignation, had an opportunity to recover. Chastised for what many felt were antisemitic comments, she and the university tried to control the damage with a video clarifying her position.

She blew it. Magill’s statement was completely lacking in empathy, which is THE key element of crisis communications. There was no message of concern for students, staff and faculty, nor the victims of the conflict – Israelis and Palestinians. There was no apology for her convoluted, legalistic testimony that was perceived as uncaring and antisemitic. The video was widely criticized, adding to the mess.

Would a more compassionate, humanistic response have saved her job? That’s hard to say, but people are very forgiving. Now Penn is presented with more challenges: recovering and rebuilding trust with key constituencies, as well as finding a new president and board chair.

Would your organization be able to respond quickly and effectively if it were suddenly caught up in a high-profile controversy? If you’re not sure, contact me for a complimentary crisis comms evaluation.