by Matt Barkett

December 12, 2023

Sometimes the simplest answer is the best one.

As a crisis advisor, I often find myself being asked how to publicly explain issues where there is much behind the scenes, often with conflicting and complex sets of facts that can appear contradictory and are difficult to present clearly and concisely. The answer I get when I ask a client what’s under the surface of a situation is often a long-winded one, heavy in technical or legal details that, while important, can overcomplicate the story.

Watching the congressional proceedings featuring some of the country’s smartest, most experienced and respected academic leaders try to defend their actions in the wave of antisemitism on college campuses provided a great example of this situation. As academics often do, they sought advice on how to answer tough questions from leading experts in the field. Most notably, they consulted legal experts to help them form answers that would explain the situations they faced and help them avoid exposure to additional legal liability.

The result was hours of contentious testimony over what boiled down to a simple question: Are antisemitism and calls for genocide against the Jewish people acceptable behavior by students on their campuses? Their answers bogged down into the minutia of what constitutes “legally permissible conduct.” However, they failed to strongly condemn the behaviors, for which Liz Magill of the University of Pennsylvania lost her job and the presidents of Harvard and MIT may be next.

All three have tried the revisionist route, turning to social media and laughably, in Harvard’s case, to the student newspaper, to explain what they actually meant. Unfortunately for them, the toothpaste is out of the tube and activism from the elite, as well as the grassroots, plows forward with calls for additional calls for their removal.

This is not to say legal advice isn’t important in a crisis. Arguably, it can be the most important advice when your business is on the line due to liability concerns. But when reputation is at stake, especially in the powder-keg world of today where activism can explode over any issue, much less one as controversial as this one, ask yourself the key question: Is this the best thing to say when measured against what is right and wrong?

Even smart people can see the correct path when complex issues are framed by common sense.

Have a complicated issue with possible public exposure that you’d like to discuss? Email me.