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The Crisis Communications around the Dal Dentistry School scandal

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I’m watching with interest the way the scandal at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Dentistry is playing out. One thing for sure — I am glad I’m not Richard Florizone.

As president, he is charged with finding an appropriate and fair way to deal with this situation and, at the same time, restore the institution’s reputation and credibility, while trying to ensure that alumni donations don’t dry up.

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Moreover, he’s doing all this amid a divided and emotionally charged public. On one side, there are those who are demanding the heads of the male students involved on a platter. On the other side, there are those who see it as bad, but not terrible.

No question, what these fourth-year students who were participants in this so-called "gentlemen's club" did was stupid and about as ungentlemanly as you can get. Hard to believe in this day and age that none of them twigged onto the fact that a Facebook page with such content might become public. Or if they did entertain that possibility, considered that it could cause some grief. Either way, you have to wonder about their judgment.

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As for the content, of course, it was disrespectful to women. As a male from an earlier generation, though, I remember my college days and those times when we guys would get together and talk in some pretty basic terms about the females in our class. It was never in violent or hate terms, in fact anything but, but trust me, it was pretty graphic discussion. And from some female friends I've spoken with, young women weren’t above doing the same. The key difference is back then we didn’t have social media. And I don’t think my experiences were all that unique. So it would be a little hypocritical for a lot of us to pile on in outrage and disgust.

Watching the media coverage of this situation, I am amazed at the loaded language being thrown around, such as calling the female dental students survivors. Survivors? Really? That sure makes them sound like victims. I suspect the females in that class are strong, self-assured women who can look after themselves. But that’s conjecture – I don’t know them, just as I suspect those who are labeling them as victims and survivors don’t know them. The rhetoric surrounding this emotionally laden situation makes the handling of it that much more difficult.

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From a crisis communications point of view, I appreciate that President Florizone is trying to be fair, but he has made some fundamental crisis communications mistakes. His biggest is not providing clarity of position. No clarity of position creates confusion and that serves no one. So much has been written about what is happening — much of it contradictory — it's hard to determine where it will end up.

Some reports contend that Florizone was aware of this issue four months ago. If so, why didn’t he do something before it blew up? And what about this restorative justice approach? The president said he decided on this course after meeting with the female students involved. It was what they wanted, he said. But now, some of those female students are emphatically saying that that is not what they want and that restorative justice is being forced on them.

Then there is the whole thing about not naming the dozen or so male students. I understand the hesitation, but not naming them puts all of Dal's male fourth-year dentistry students under a cloud of suspicion that could adversely affect their ability to obtain a license to practice. Some provincial dentistry bodies have already requested the names on a confidential basis.

There's no doubt that this is a complicated situation with many related issues. From a crisis communications perspective until there is clarity of position things will not improve. In fact, the lack of clarity is feeding emotions, creating pressure to act decisively. While decisiveness is often a good approach, haste is not.

On the positive side, all but the most fervent, would probably agree that President Florizone desires to do the right thing with consequences for the students that are appropriate. The problem is that he’s in a no-win situation. Some, perhaps even many, will not be satisfied with anything less than expulsion. The big question for him is this: Should he sacrifice the budding careers and futures of a few young men who did something stupid just to make the crisis go away?

As with many crisis communications issues, there's no easy answer.

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