A Tiny College Offers PR Crisis Lesson Businesses Should Study

Shimer College

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It is human nature to dread negative press. As marketers and communicators, we worry what the consequences will be for our business. But sometimes bad press just happens. Recently, it happened to Shimer College, a tiny great-books college on Chicago’s South Side.

Early this fall, Washington Monthly listed Shimer College as one of the worst colleges in America. The author of the piece said the magazine’s aim was to identify institutions that overcharge students and deliver a product that is so poor that students don’t often finish. Shimer was chief among them.

What happened after the article was released was a time of uncertainty for Shimer. The institution, with virtually no endowment and roughly 80 students, didn’t really know what to do. Do they vehemently dispute the findings? Use paid advertisements to help market its messages? What the college finally decided on was interesting: owning it.

Related: How the Cruise Industry Can Overcome its Reputation Problem

In the weeks after the article was published, Shimer and its constituents began wearing the dubious honor as a badge of pride. Early on, current students and faculty voiced their displeasure and protested that Shimer couldn’t be evaluated in the context of other colleges and universities. Students soon rallied behind a hashtag campaign lauding Shimer as the #bestworstcollege.

But it was the public outpouring of support from Shimer alumni that got the attention of journalist Jon Ronson, who wanted to see for himself what “the worst college in America” looked like. The resulting Guardian article suggested that America’s worst college might instead be the model of how higher ed can do better.

Related: In a PR Crisis, There's No Room for 'No Comment'

What benefits has Shimer seen since “steering into the skid”? Since the Guardian story ran, the college’s homepage has seen a significant bump in traffic. From the story alone, the institution received more than 50 new applications, additional requests for information and questions about visiting campus. Social media has continued to create a groundswell of support, reaching more than 50,000 people just a few days after the story ran.

Shimer isn’t the only institution that has embraced its scarlet letter. Several years ago Dominos told the American public that its product was gross. They vowed to do better. The result was revenue increased and people started reporting that they liked Dominos new pizza.

What the public wants is honesty. It will forgive mistakes, but it won’t forgive being lied to or sold goods that aren’t as advertised. While it may be tempting to ignore bad press or poor reviews, never waste a good crisis. Marketers and other communicators may find lessons, even a sense of liberation, in using "bad news'' to refine their brand messaging.

Related: Uber and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Month

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