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In my opinion

How to work with your student union when a PR crisis hits

Open dialogue and mutual respect will go a long way to solving disputes between student groups and university administrators.

BY KATHRYN LEBLANC | APR 18 2018

Student unions and university administrators have a peculiar relationship. They handle many of the same issues yet seem to frequently disagree. University staff and student unions often clash over sensitive topics, sometimes leading to heated exchanges and a flurry of press releases.

While studying at the University of Ottawa, I have worked as the head of communications for the student union. In this position, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to bridge the gap between student governments and university administrations. Here are some of my tips for administrators on how your institution can better prepare to work with your student union by understanding the following six points:

  1. Secure strong ties with student leaders

When communicating with student leaders during a crisis, it is a big asset to have a pre-existing relationship. If you build a relationship before any issues arise, then you will have an easier time communicating with each other during an emergency.

I suggest starting by setting up an annual meeting with your student union’s newly elected team. At the meeting, you can ask the students what their priorities are for the year. In addition, you can take the opportunity to ask the student union about their media and crisis preparedness plans. Establishing strong ties with the person who handles media enquiries would be strategically beneficial to your team, whether that involves collaborating with the student union president or a full-time employee. You may also want to offer the student union executives a media training session delivered by your senior staff.

If a public relations crisis emerges, then consider reaching out to your student union to offer strategic advice from your media relations department. Gentle offers of collaboration are always a good idea – as long as these efforts don’t come across as condescending. Ultimately, your student union will likely appreciate the PR advice, especially if they get caught up in an event that receives national media coverage.

  1. Understand the culture of your student union

Student unions are not all the same. Some are affiliated with national organizations, such as the Canadian Federation of Students, while others belong to local associations or stand on their own. Many unions skew towards leftish politics and social progressivism; others are decidedly more centrist.

At the end of an academic year, you can network with outgoing executives from your student union and ask them how their interactions with administrators impacted their work in the student movement. You can also learn much about student union culture from the campus student newspaper. In fact, I would recommend reading the past five years of archived content about your student union as good background preparation.

  1. Media monitoring is your best friend

To stay abreast of issues relating to your student union, I’d recommend closely monitoring relevant local media, campus newspapers and university social media channels. Pay attention to Facebook groups and Twitter accounts that use variations of the name “Spotted at [your university].”

Another tip is to monitor student unions at other universities. If a neighbouring school is mobilizing in favour of fossil fuel divestment, then your student union may follow suit. You will be better prepared to collaborate with your student union if you know which issues are popular in the student movement. You’ll get bonus points if you stay on top of trends and proactively reach out to discuss important issues with your student union.

  1. Work with your student union (and not against it)

Student unions manage dozens if not hundreds of employees, control millions of dollars, and fight for student rights. Always remember that fights between student unions and their universities can be messy and time-consuming. If you’ve properly built ties with student leaders, then you will have an easier time working together during times of crisis. They can provide valuable insights to you and your staff.

Moreover, recognize the power imbalance between a university president and a 20-something student union representative. Avoid aggressive actions at all costs, because the uneven power dynamic can exacerbate tensions. Most student unions are dedicated to challenging racist and patriarchal structures; they can and will examine your actions with a social justice-oriented framework. A failure to acknowledge this fact may exacerbate tensions with your student union.

  1. Case studies will help

The same issues surface over and over again on university campuses. Abortion, freedom of speech, accessibility, tuition fees, sexual assault and mental health are all frequent topics of discussion. It may help to familiarize yourself with case studies related to each of these topics and prepare your responses to each possible scenario. There may be additional conversations that are important to your university or your region.

  1. Don’t jump into internal student affairs

University officials should not comment on the internal affairs of student unions. If a student union executive or employee is caught up in a scandal, then it’s best to stay out of the resulting campus discourse. In response to any questioning, you can explain that the student union is a separate organization with their own internal governance structures and the issue in question does not fall under the purview of the university administration.

The relationship between a university and their student union will never be perfect. However, disagreements can be managed and lessened through dialogue and mutual cooperation. Better communication will occur when administrators treat student union members with respect and offer them sufficient resources. In the case of a PR issue relating to a student union, building a strong relationship and researching case studies will allow you to manage the situation effectively and efficiently.

Kathryn LeBlanc is vice-president, services and communications, at the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa. Her one-year term ends in May.

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