School learns the hard way how NOT to handle negative publicity

A funny thing happens when someone attempts to take away another’s freedom of speech: their message gets even louder and attracts more attention.

That’s the lesson Victor Valley College in Victorville, Calif., learned the hard way when they blocked access to a student Web site containing negative opinions about school leadership. The site,, contains information about accreditation issues, claims of corruption running rampant in school leadership and other posts placing the school in an unfavorable light.

The site was originally created as a resource for students in the school’s Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning/Refrigeration program, said Web master Harold Hernandez, who is currently enrolled in the School’s Electronics & Computer Technology program. When Hernandez and other students began witnessing what they said were problems with instructors and administrators, they decided to use the site as a way to inform others.

Rather than address the Web site head on, a school administrator decided to block access to the site from all campus computers. After outraged students, faculty and media members began complaining about the situation, administrators decided to reverse their decision, unblocking the site a few days later.

“It should not have been blocked period,” said Bill Greulich, Director of Marketing and Governmental Relations for Victor Valley College. He said that although the School disagrees with the content featured on the Web site and believes its allegations are untrue, everyone is entitled to free speech. By reversing their decision to block the site, he said, the right to free speech was upheld.

So what began as an effort to keep the School’s reputation from being tarnished actually resulted in more attention for the student-run Web site.

“This situation managed to get us a little more of the limelight,” Hernandez said. Traffic to the site in the days after the temporary shut down increased from an average of 50 to 60 hits a day to more than 400 to 500 per day, he said.

For schools that are dealing with negative comments from students or faculty, Kevin Kuzma, Public Relations Manager for PlattForm, an advertising agency specializing in direct-response marketing for higher education, offers the following advice:

  • Respond openly and honestly to criticisms of your organization. Let your detractors and the media know where you stand on the issue and what you’re doing to improve the situation, if applicable.
  • Never respond with “No comment.” To the public, a response of no comment means you’re hiding something. When possible, it’s better to collaborate with the members of your staff to discover all of the details of the situation at hand, then issue a statement clarifying your position to the news media.
  • Make sure your staff knows how to react in crisis situations. Before a crisis occurs, identify who is the primary decision maker and who will represent your organization to the media.

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