A B.C. polytechnic is rethinking its communications strategy after failing to reveal RCMP are investigating the activities of an alleged voyeur on campus, until months after the man's arrest. What should they have done instead?
The incident came to light Tuesday, when media reported a student at the B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby had been charged after allegedly secretly observing and recording men in a campus bathroom.
Court records show Chieh-Sen Yang was charged on Nov. 20 — but BCIT did not make this information public, nor reveal until this week, RCMP believe there might have been further such incidents.
Crisis communications expert Allan Bonner says there is often a logjam over what to do when crises hit, and in this case, BCIT made the wrong decision.
"There is a sort of rigor mortis that sets in at the beginning of incidents ... You're almost better off doing anything than nothing," said Bonner. "More disclosure is better than less disclosure."
Take the hit early
While BCIT's lack of disclosure has not been explained, Bonner has his own theories about what leads to lack of action in these circumstances.
"There are a number of powerful forces that say, 'Are you sure? Can we wait? ... We don't want to alarm people. We don't want to affect enrolment.'
"This is all very damaging after the fact when this all comes out. You are much better off taking your hit earlier, than taking multiple hits later."
Public relations consultant Chris Freimond, based in North Vancouver, says institutions need to get this kind of information out to stakeholders as soon as possible as a matter of control.
"By not doing so, you run the risk of losing any control you may have had over when and how the information gets out — which is what seems to have happened in this case.
"BCIT is now trying to catch up to the story."
'I believe we can improve'
In a statement, BCIT president Kathy Kinloch addressed her decision not to reveal the information earlier to students, but does not explain why the information was withheld.
"This incident has... encouraged me to reflect on our communication approach with our campus community. I believe we can improve,' she wrote.
"You have my assurance we will communicate with you in a timely way in future."
Freimond says Kinloch's statement is a move in the right direction — but the challenge for BCIT is to close the gap between its actions and its stakeholders' expectations.
"BCIT now needs to restore confidence in its stakeholder communications process," said Freimond. "How it does that — and how it demonstrates to stakeholders that it's being done — will be important."
Assurances and reflections are not enough, says Bonner.
"You can't harrumph your way out of a crisis like this. You can't just use platitudes," he said. "The talking part is easy, the doing part is hard.
"You really have to show people you are contrite, that you have done something to prevent future incidents, and that they are concrete things that will have an effect."
What students need to hear
BCIT could perhaps learn from examples of similar cases involving educational establishments in British Columbia.
This week, the University of Victoria informed students about two sexual assaults near the campus, making sure they knew support services are available.
Given that it's not clear whether students were even involved, Bonner says, UVic has done the right thing.
"This is what students need to hear," said Bonner. "This is a classic case of erring on the side of caution — and good for them."
In contrast, the University of British Columbia ended up being investigated by CBC's the fifth estate last year, over the way it addressed — or rather, didn't — reports of sexual assaults on campus.
Freimond says it's puzzling the university cited privacy concerns in refusing to discuss the issue afterwards.
"There are ways of addressing issues like this without infringing on privacy.
"To not do so feeds into the perception that UBC did not handle the situation well and tried to make it go away quietly and with as little disclosure as possible."
A captive audience
Of course, this isn't just about manipulating public perception or doing damage control.
The protection of the public through the provision of timely information is essential, says Alyn Edwards at Peak Communicators.
"A police investigation into a peeping Tom incident and the arrest of a suspect is well within the need-to-know category so people can take appropriate action," says Edwards.
"Places of learning have a duty to provide a safe environment for students, faculty and members of the public. Timely and full disclosure of any dangerous situation and action taken is not an option."
Bonner says the fact post-secondary campuses are filled with young people means schools could be much more prepared for cases like this.
"This is not a wide-ranging population .. and they behave in a certain way that is relatively predictable," he said. "You police and prevent differently than you do for the wider population."
Bonner says preventative action goes beyond more lighting, policing or panic buttons — it is a cultural change that is needed.
"You have a captive audience at universities and colleges. What can you say in classrooms? What can you work into the curriculum? What can you do ... to talk about what is acceptable behaviour?"
"There is a lot at stake — and it's worth handling this very, very professionally and well."