Case Study: Vanderbilt -- how inauthentic communication can trigger a new crisis
On February 13, 2023, three students were killed and five others injured in a mass shooting on the campus of Michigan State University. The gunman, 43-year-old Anthony Dwayne McRae, shot himself dead when he was confronted by police.
In the aftermath of the shootings, Vanderbilt University in Tennessee decided to send a consoling email to students using the following text:
We must recognize that creating a safe and inclusive environment is an ongoing process that requires ongoing effort and commitment. We must continue to engage in conversations about how we can do better, learn from our mistakes, and work together to build a stronger, more inclusive community. One of the key ways to promote a culture of care on our campus is through building strong relationships with one another. This involves actively engaging with people from different backgrounds and perspectives, listening to their stories, and showing empathy and support.
At the bottom of the message, in small print, the email said: “Paraphrase from OpenAI’s ChatGPT AI language model, personal communication.” The mail was signed by two administrators.
Reporters at the Vanderbilt student newspaper noticed the ChatGPT reference and wrote a story about it. Local TV news picked up the story which then cascaded up to national media including CNN CBS, and then international media including The Guardian. The use of ChatGPT in a situation requiring human compassion was denounced mercilessly by Jon Oliver on Last Week Tonight.
Vanderbilt apologized for “poor judgment” in using ChatGPT.
“While we believe in the message of inclusivity expressed in the email, using ChatGPT to generate communications on behalf of our community in a time of sorrow and in response to a tragedy contradicts [our] values that characterize Peabody College. As with all new technologies that affect higher education, this moment gives us all an opportunity to reflect on what we know and what we still must learn about AI.”
Laith Kayat, a Vanderbilt student from Michigan whose sibling attends Michigan State, was quoted in media calling the use of AI “disgusting”.
“Deans, provosts, and the chancellor: do more. Do anything. And lead us into a better future with genuine, human empathy, not a robot,” Kayat said.
This story illustrates two key dynamics about crisis communication:
- Crisis news coverage often starts small and local, in this case a student newspaper article, but a newsworthy and topical story can and will rapidly escalate virally up the media food chain as it is picked up by increasingly influential publications. Treat coverage in small media just as seriously as big ones.
- Authenticity is essential both in general communications and in crisis positioning. Inauthentic content or tone is a trigger for outrage. In this case inauthenticity was the prime cause of the crisis. More commonly it’s inauthenticity in the response that worsens the reputational damage by positioning the organisation as untrustworthy and manipulative.
ISOC course links
This content relates to the following short courses at the International School of Communications, available live online and also face-to-face at our training centres in London and Dubai:
- Crisis Communication Programme
- Crisis Communication Strategy and Management
- Effective Writing Programme
- Handling the Media in a Crisis
- Internal Communications
- Press Release Writing
- Reputation and Issues Management
- Social Media Crisis Management
- Strategic Communications and PR Programme
- Strategic Media Engagement
- Writing for Business
- Writing for Social Media and the Web
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