Four Takeaways from Nikole Hannah-Jones vs. UNC

The University of North Carolina is reeling from public rebuke in its treatment of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a case involving issues of race, gender, merit and privilege that offers a cautionary tale for any institution

The university’s delay of a tenure offer for Hannah-Jones came amid conservative criticism of her work on The New York Times’ 1619 Project. And it led to widespread criticism that damaged UNC’s brand and raised questions about its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Kito Huggins, the co-chair of FGH’s Diversity and Inclusion practice, offers four takeaways for communicators:

Be transparent, truthful and timely.
For months UNC did not explain why it delayed consideration of Hannah-Jones’ tenure, even as criticism mounted. Choosing the path of least resistance – silence – will greatly compromise an organization’s position, irreparably impair the credibility of lead speakers and allow critics to fill the void.

Follow your own rules.
Any organization about to take a position amid controversy must be able to cite the protocol that was followed. The prolonged delay of Hannah-Jones’ tenure candidacy marked a glaring departure from precedent set since the 1980s.

Lead with compassion and respect.
When managing a sensitive matter, organizational communications that are cold, evasive and officious will only stoke the outrage of vocal dissenters. Leading these conversations and treating stakeholders with dignity and respect can quell the backlash.

Develop and deploy a crisis playbook.
Before organizations are thrust into public debate on controversial matters, they must plan for crisis communications. Messages should be refined, practiced but not contrived, and pressure tested to face tough questions.