Last week, Harvard’s Claudine Gay became the second Ivy League president to resign following a month-long public relations firestorm. University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill stepped down days after a disastrous Congressional hearing that saw both university leaders under intense public scrutiny.
The hearing was to examine how campus leaders across the nation had been responding to student protests of the Israel-Palestine war. Unfortunately, both Gay and Magill were seen avoiding direct answers, often riding the fence on a highly controversial topic. Soundbites aired over, and over across media outlets and the leaders were heavily criticized.
Gay and Magill were experienced public speakers and gave excellent, on-message opening remarks but, as time went on, they got increasingly agitated. It’s evident that they didn’t prepare enough for repetitive, tough questions or the combative environment — something we routinely work with our clients on in preparing for legislative testimony.
Most importantly, Gay and Magill needed to project a clear message that stated their university’s stance on both terrorism and free speech. They failed to do this — allowing others to draw conclusions and paint a narrative that left little confidence in their judgment and ability to lead.
In the days following, Magill’s quick resignation allowed Penn the opportunity to begin their rebuild. However, as Allison Carter reported for PR Daily, Gay’s month-long holdout “encouraged some to put Gay’s life under a microscope, finding instances from her past that made it untenable for her to continue in her role.” This has further damaged both her and Harvard’s reputation.
This was a communications nightmare, plain and simple — destroying careers and badly bruising the credibility of some of the nation’s top universities. It’s also a warning to invest in public relations. During a controversy, your message and those who deliver it need to be clear and disciplined, or everyone could suffer enormously.