Remembering the Mills College Coed Strike

From Los Angeles Times coverage of the Mills strike.

On May 3, 1990, Mills, a small women’s-only liberal arts college in northern California, decided to go coed and, much to the delight of media outlets and pundits, the students struck back and shut down the school for the rest of the semester. The events of those two weeks swept Mills and Mills women onto front pages and TV talk shows around the world.

When women’s issues make headlines, the coverage often wallows in the language of gossip and crisis. Its function, as Susan Faludi points out in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, is to focus the reader not on the “actual conditions of women’s lives,” but on “a closed system that starts and ends in the media, popular culture, and advertising – an endless feedback loop that perpetuates and exaggerates its own false images of womanhood.”

When you are the public face of an organization dedicated to women, how do you avoid getting caught in that feedback loop? Is it possible, in a world where TV talk show hosts dismiss proponents of women’s equality by calling them “femi-Nazis,” to receive fair coverage?

Journalist Linda Ellerbee calls feminism “the new F-word,” an appellation so contentious that even women who’ve risen to the top of their professions feel they must assure the writers of magazine profiles that, No, they most certainly are not feminists.

Not that anyone, reporters included, can tell you what the F-word means exactly. Back in 1913, Rebecca West wrote, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”

Two decades ago, the students of Mills College in Oakland, Calif., were blocking access to campus administration buildings, behaving like anything but doormats. They were protesting the board of trustees’ decision to make the all-women’s college coed. I was one of two spokeswomen responsible for explaining to the world’s media why they opposed the admission of men.

When the coed announcement was made to the Mills community, scores of students were filmed and photographed sobbing. Although many couldn’t understand why Mills women were crying, the reaction managed to pigeonhole them into one of the typical roles allowed to women in news stories. They were the perfect victims.

“We Will Not Accept This” – The Students Take Over

Syndicated cartoon.

It took only a few hours for students to move into strike mode and effectively shut down the college. But, when the students threw off the victim mantle and took a stand on keeping Mills for women only, the headlines, letters to the editor, opinion pieces, and cartoons turned absurd and nasty. Amongst the condescension there was a strong undercurrent of anger. A few even suggested the students should be punished.

“When is the administration going to bring in the police to remove students?,” we were asked hourly. With students sitting around studying for finals in doorways, there wasn’t much juicy “Film at 11” footage. The news media resorted to rerunning the scene of crying “victims.”

In this uncomfortable climate – with some reporters panting for a confrontation between students and police – you’d think it would have been impossible to come off sounding rational in news reports while discussing the benefits women’s colleges offer female students.

How did we handle it? From the moment we heard the first mention of “coeducation” as one of four possible strategic directions for the future of Mills College, we knew that only a proactive approach would allow the Mills message to be heard.

Our first press release went out more than eight months before the trustee decision. We spent whole days talking with reporters who arrived on campus (some with fairly sensationalistic preconceptions), spoke with students and professors, and left with a greater understanding of women’s colleges.

In an educational environment, we set out to teach about the many studies which show that coed colleges offer women fewer chances to become leaders in and out of the classroom and why, given that research, Mills would consider the possibility of admitting men. During the months before the decision, we were repeatedly rewarded with intelligent media analyses of the coed debate.

Even in the midst of the two-week protest, persistence, patience and the educational approach tamed the most objectionable inquiries.

Did it work?

The pre-work we’d done ensured reasoned stories from reporters who’d met students, faculty and trustees before the decision. They discussed why women’s-only education was important to defend. It was the reporters – and editorial cartoonists back at the paper – who dipped in to the story after the tears who didn’t always offer balanced coverage.

But, some journalists even reexamined the students’ tearful outburst on May 3. By May 18, Richard Price was writing in USA Today: “Shannon McMackin has a message for the world. She’s crying no more. McMackin was caught weeping on camera after Mills trustees voted to accept male students. ‘I couldn’t stand it if we were remembered as just a bunch of hysterical crying women,’ she says. ‘When we were done crying, we went out and did something about it.’”

What they accomplished – overturning the coed decision – has never been done before in the history of U.S. education. It caused women’s colleges that were thinking about coeducation to re-evaluate, strengthening their resolve to continue to offer a curriculum for women only.

From Washington Post coverage.

After the Mills revolution, other stories, such as the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, received wall-to-wall coverage. In the years following the strike, I noticed more women giving testimony in the news media about the empowerment they’ve received because of the fight for women’s equality. In fact, if you’re a woman, and you’ve ever told someone you feel “empowered,” you probably have Mills women to thank for that particular vocabulary choice. For two solid weeks, empowerment was at the heart of the students’ messaging to the world and, with all that media attention, “empowerment” did the 1990s’ equivalent of going viral. Nike even created an ad campaign aimed squarely at women, all about empowerment (and sneakers).

This is not to say that 777 Mills students are entirely responsible for the resurgence of feminism and the support of equality and empowerment, but there’s no denying they were out there at the forefront, pushing women’s issues back into the public arena at a time when most politicians, reporters and even feminists were trying to sweep them under the doormat.

How Do You Prepare for Crisis Communications?

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Strategizing and preparing for crisis takes time. It’ll take a lot of your team’s time, more than one brainstorming session, with several hours of message-writing to follow.

That can be a painful proposition for many communications departments these days. It’s also the best reason to walk through these exercises now. When you see how long it takes to prep strategies and messaging, you’ll understand why you don’t want to be spending precious time not communicating in the midst of a crisis because you’re still formulating a response.

I discussed addressing crises that relate to your company’s core competency in my previous post. Now, let’s look more generally across your business.

Don’t panic when you see the long list that follows! You and your team will decide what’s relevant to your organization, which will help you cross off items that don’t need to be discussed (of course, you’ll want to add concerns specific to your industry or company).

Here are some crisis-generators, both internal and external. Which are relevant to your organization?

Corporate policy
Financial impropriety
Operations (including supply chain, vendor management)
Workplace safety
Employee relations (labor practices and contractor management, office/plant closures, layoffs)
Deliberate acts of omission (issues the company knew about in advance and didn’t resolve)
Product development
Community relations
Employee sabotage
Overt acts (protests, tampering or hacking, lawsuits)
Violent acts
Natural disasters
Crises experienced by competitors in the industry (or by suppliers) that may reflect on your company
Events near company locations that may disrupt business

Next Steps

The following exercises will define how you respond to many of the potential crises identified above.

Start by brainstorming troublesome situations that have the potential to become crises using the questionnaire below. A few words about leading a brainstorming session:

  • Establish an open-minded atmosphere for brainstorming where everyone is encouraged to contribute and no suggestion is insignificant or off-the-wall.
  • Encourage team members to think like a reporter, play devil’s advocate, explore worst-case scenarios.
  • Enable the team to speak candidly about the company in the spirit of protecting its reputation and best interests. This isn’t the time to look at the company through rose-colored glasses – reporters won’t. No one should feel like she or he might be considered disloyal or “negative about the company” for suggestions made during brainstorming. You need everyone’s best ideas to develop crisis communications, not thinking that skirts issues because of politeness.

Use or adapt the following questionnaire for your brainstorming session:

  • List any troublesome situations that your company has faced in the past (even if you didn’t receive publicity at the time).
  • Define current or future initiatives or changes that might generate negative discussion of your organization.
  • What people, events and situations have caused negative publicity for others in your industry?
  • What other industries share similar issues with yours? What people, events and situations have caused negative publicity for those industries?
  • What allegations (as opposed to actual events) could be made about your organization, senior leaders or business operations?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would most damage the reputation your company has for its commitment to its values?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would most damage your organization’s reputation in the communities where you do business?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would turn suppliers and vendors against your company?
  • What keeps you up at night? What’s your worst-case scenario?

Now:

  • Make a list of business unit leaders and/or managers.
  • Assign team members to schedule interviews with business unit leaders/managers to discuss their areas of expertise and any potential issues that they’d like to have addressed by the crisis communications plan. Walk them through the questionnaire where it’s relevant and if it’s helpful.
  • Find out from business unit leaders/managers how the company will respond to a crisis in their area, how the chain of command works during a crisis, and what is and is not proprietary information.

Adding the expertise of business leaders can be essential in generating buy-in for the overall crisis communications plan. As part of this work, you’ll want to send out an email to business leaders prior to the scheduling of interviews to set the context for crisis planning and its value to the company, and to introduce the team member who will be contacting the business leader for an interview.

Can You Plan Crisis Communications?

Inquiries inevitably follow a crisis. Reporters, employees, customers, members of the board, suppliers, the social media universe – all clamor for answers often while companies are still responding to an event and are least prepared to deliver strategically developed, thoughtful, detailed statements.

The early hours of a crisis are a critical time period. If a company doesn’t help shape the perception of the situation in the public’s mind – or if the company’s response is incomplete, inconsistent or, worse, if the company appears to lack an understanding of the magnitude of the event or to be lying about it – traditional and social media will create a story for the public. Once that happens, it can be impossible to change first impressions.

Effective, planned crisis communications can prevent the misperceptions that lead to loss of reputation and revenue.

Planning the Unexpected

Is planning for crisis even realistic? Many people think of crises as sudden events that appear out of the blue and disappear just as quickly, like a thunderstorm. This is the reason some communicators offer for not planning ahead.

That seems logical: How can you write messaging to address something if you don’t know what it is; when, where, why, or how it will occur; and who will be affected?

But, I’d argue that crises rarely happen by surprise. Say, for example, your company or one of its branches or franchises is located in a region prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, or tornados. While you may not know exactly when a natural disaster will strike, it’s still possible to prepare a communications (and business continuity) plan to respond when they do.

Likewise, working with appropriate subject-matter experts in your organization, it shouldn’t take too much imagination to brainstorm the causes of other potential crises and get plans in place to address them.

In fact, negative public perception and negative media attention are far more likely if a company is believed to have ignored a minor situation, or allowed a grievance to fester, when it could have been resolved. These situations, improperly managed, can quickly escalate into full-blown issues.

In the Midst of Crisis, It’s Still Possible to Tell Your Story

When you’re prepared it’s possible, even during disaster, to turn on CNN or scan Twitter and find positive stories and messages about your company.

Two examples of this premise in action, one positive, one negative:

Johnson & Johnson’s response to Tylenol tampering in the mid-80s (an older example, and before the time of social media. Improperly handled, this crisis could have irreparably harmed the public’s confidence in the product. Yet with careful crisis management, which included swift, strategic messaging that focused on the company’s values and how they related to the public’s safety, the company was able to protect its reputation among consumers.)

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s erratic communications, which continued for several months after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the northwest coast of Japan, critically damaging its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

Crisis & Corporate Reputation

An excellent starting point in preparing for crisis is to focus on your organization’s key area of competence. (Note that this assumes you and/or your department already are responsible for crisis communications and coordinating with key partners in Risk Management, Business Continuity, Human Resources, Legal, and Security. Getting buy-in for crisis communications is a topic for different post, another day.)

If you’re developing crisis communications plans, try this exercise. Write the answers to the following questions and include them in your brainstorming:

  • What is your company’s key competency?
  • What is the organization known for?
  • What’s your company’s tag line or motto?
  • What’s your mission statement?
  • How is this competency reflected in the organization’s values and business operations?

Now, for each of the answers, dig deeper:

  • What are the worst events or rumors that could befall us in our key area of competency?
  • How might someone twist our tag line, motto or mission statement to attack the company?
  • What kind of failure in the way we operate might reflect not just on our ability to deliver products or services, but directly on our values?

Finally:

  • Develop messaging to address each of the scenarios you’ve brainstormed.

There are several reasons why this is a valuable exercise:

  • It will start the process of brainstorming around where potential crises might crop up.
  • It will help you to develop messages that reiterate the company’s commitment to excellence and its values, which is crucial during a crisis.
  • It will help you discover information or resources you may need to answer questions, explore scenarios, or develop messages, but don’t have right now.

Natural disasters, product tampering, questions about your company’s competency – and worse. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. They keep CEOs and communications people awake at night. I’ve raised these difficult and distressing issues – and there are plenty more – for a reason. Strategic, reputation-saving communications rarely can be developed on the spot when a crisis hits.

On Thursday: I’ll provide additional checklists that will help in crisis communications planning and messaging.