University Smartly Leads Discussion of Its Uncomfortable Past
5/4/2020 – – Fifty years ago today, four college students were killed by the Ohio National Guard during an anti Vietnam War demonstration on the campus of Kent State University. Outrage over the deaths of William Schroeder, Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller and Sandra Scheuer hastened the war’s end and led to the early termination of the 1969-1970 school year at colleges across the country.
This defining event in American history also ended up defining Kent State University. When you hear the words “Kent State,” chances are good your thoughts go back a half century to this tragic shedding of blood. You don’t have to be a marketing wiz to see this as a branding challenge for Kent State University.
Understanding that the 50th anniversary would inevitably generate heightened attention, Kent State’s administration made the very good decision to fully embrace their institution’s past.
In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”), we examine nine common sources from which crises spring: People, Products, Priorities, Policies, Performance, Politics, Procrastination, Privacy and Past. A college’s or company’s past is fertile ground for reputational erosion. And anniversaries are common “hooks” for media coverage, especially when the event being remembered is negative.
The best way to deal with this reality is with honesty and transparency. Spin and attempts to downplay history rarely work. Organizations can control their own destinies as much as possible by encouraging an open examination of their histories, warts and all. Better you lead the discussion than allow others to define your heritage.
To see an excellent example of “leading the discussion,” visit Kent State’s multi-media “May 4 Commemoration” website (linked below). Being unable to host anniversary events on campus because of response to the coronavirus shutdown, Kent State President Todd Diacon and the school’s May 4 Advisory Committee created a virtual commemoration. You can find fascinating historic discussion and visuals, learn about new scholarships named in honor of the four fallen students, and watch an emotional performance of “Ohio,” the hit song recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young 11 days after the shootings.
Tin soldiers and Nixon’s comin’
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drummin’
Four dead in Ohio
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are gunning us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her and
Found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?
Congratulations to Kent State University for the pragmatic embrace of its uncomfortable but important place in history. Instead of ducking history, the school is leading a timely discussion. The threatened rights of free speech and peaceful assembly — so violently challenged on May 4, 1970 — are in the headlines today. And it is beyond creepy that college campuses across the nation are again shutdown in May, just as they were 50 years ago in the tumultuous weeks following “Kent State.”