An Ivy League Crisis

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    Shady investigative practices land Harvard in need of crisis management

    Digital privacy is certainly a hot-button topic these days, as Harvard administrators quickly found out after its search through archived emails of 16 resident deans not only without permission, but without any notification, raised a ruckus, creating a need for crisis management.

    Harvard did issue a meandering, 800+ word statement, a mere 27 of which, by our count, had anything to do with apologizing, while the rest attempted, in a roundabout fashion, to explain the logic behind school administration’s decision.

    Interviewed by’s Matt Wilson, BCM president Jonathan Bernstein offered up the following thoughts on the situation:

    Jonathan Bernstein, of Bernstein Crisis Management, says Harvard’s apology statement only gets a score of three on a scale of 10.

    “I suspect that Harvard’s PR staff were not consulted, or were ignored, before the administration engaged in the secret search,” he says.

    Employers could conceivably have lots of legal, moral and ethical reasons to search employee emails, Bernstein says, but Harvard didn’t make much of an effort to communicate what it was doing.

    Compounding the crisis is the fact that the affected deans were not informed of the search even after it was complete, instead having to hear the news from media outlets and peers.

    When dealing with the muddy legal waters that surround all things digital, from email and text messages to Facebook and Twitter, it is absolutely critical to set a clear policy, and communicate that policy with those to whom it applies.

    This entire situation was originally part of an investigation into the leak of confidential files, but by choosing to take a shady route themselves and hiding the email search, even from those whose personal files were being breached, Harvard administration is left with no moral high ground to stand on.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]