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"We Take Sexual Violence Really Seriously"


A short guide to (reactive) communications in relation to sexual violence in universities.

In addition to all the work universities must be doing to try and ensure their students – and, in fact, all members of their community – are appropriately and effectively supported should they be subjected to sexual violence, and of course try and prevent these behaviours in the first place, a vital part of a university’s approach must consider the communications around the work they are doing. So often, in relation to sexual violence, universities’ communications can do individual staff members and teams a disservice, and, at worst, can be actively disrespectful to their own university community. Whether this is intentional or not actually isn’t too relevant here. We must always be considerate of the perception gap – that is, the gap between what is put out and what/how this is perceived (sometimes referred to as the arc of distortion). Universities may have excellent prevention and response strategies and processes, but if this is not the perception of members of the university community, this is possibly just a harmful as not having these strategies in place at all.


Universities must have prevention (proactive) and response (reactive) processes in terms of working to tackle sexual violence and support those affected by it. Either as part of this overall approach, or as a separate piece that works in tandem alongside, a communications strategy must also follow these principles of pro-action and reaction. Types of communications should include the university’s responsibilities in relation to prevention and response, they should be up-to-date with training, campaigns and developments that require supportive marketing, and be able to answer questions from those engaging with various communications channels. Vitally, universities’ communications should also be able to respond appropriately in the event of high-profile incidents. The latter is what the rest of this post will focus on.


When high-profile events draw attention to a university’s sexual violence approach (strategic and operational preventative and response work), this can be in relation to individual cases or sexual violence across the universities sector in general. More often than not, the university responses I see contain the same words – occasionally in a different order: “We / the University of Madeupshire take sexual violence really/very/extremely seriously”. Occasionally there are also some links to support services and disciplinary procedures provided.



Generic

It is rare that the communications put out, particularly those that follow the above template, specifically acknowledge the catalyst of the communications themselves, or provide a plan of action moving forward. Of course, universities should not be commenting on specific cases, but communications in relation to ‘sexual violence’ (whether this is an individual’s or a group’s experience) need to be more specialised than one generic response. That is the first issue with this statement of “we take it really seriously” – it’s not specific enough. Sexual violence is a term that encompasses a broad spectrum of behaviours and sexual violence victim/survivors will experience a broad spectrum of impacts and repercussions on their daily lives. When it comes to effective responses, tailoring practical and emotional support options is vital – communications should follow a similar ethos.


Overuse

Because it’s such a generic statement, it’s overused. Universities can just pick up and insert it into whatever tweet or statement they’re putting out, but does it actually mean anything in that context? I once saw some feedback from a graphic designer that said “if everything is in bold, nothing is in bold” – the same could apply here: if all universities are saying it, it may as well be that no universities are saying it. Why should students and other members of the community believe a statement that continues to be used, despite continued concerns in the area?



A possible alternative example to consider:

“We at the University of Madeupshire would like to acknowledge the recent media attention around sexual violence in universities. We understand that different individuals will be subjected to different forms of sexual violence in different ways, and these will have a variety of different and serious impacts on their lives. We recognise we have an important part to play in reducing, if not eliminating, the incidences of sexual violence that are happening in our university and where that’s not possible, we have a responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of our whole university community. We do not take this responsibility lightly so over the next few days and weeks, we are going to take the following steps…”



Bare Minimum

The first step of a risk management model is ‘identification’ (followed by other steps including assessment, management, communication and review). Identifying that sexual violence is a serious concern, though the generic statement, is pretty much the bare minimum universities could and should be doing. Identifying and acknowledging that sexual violence is very serious, that sexual violence happens (at high rates) in their university, and that they have a responsibility to do something about this is a much better position for universities to be starting from, and communications should reflect at least this level of understanding and commitment.


Undermining

Whether universities are responding in relation to individual cases or a broader sector context, there are almost always individual student victim/survivors whose circumstances and experiences have influenced heightened attention. This attention is rarely due to positive experiences and is rarely just based on the sexual violence itself – more commonly this attention is due to a poor response by an individual service or organisation, such as a university. Therefore, for any university to then say that they take sexual violence really seriously, this completely undermines and attempts to call into question the experiences of the students who have spoken out. Universities are effectively saying ‘yes this student has said they didn’t have a good reporting experience through the university, but we take it really seriously so that student obviously can’t be right’. Universities should be reminded to revisit the concept of the perception gap and acknowledge (internally at least) individual students’ experiences to be their truth, and work with them to help reduce the perception gap. This can also be acknowledged externally in communications, for example: “We have a number of different support and reporting options for students, but we acknowledge that information about these might be unclear and difficult to find so we are working to improve this urgently.”.



Final points to consider:

  • Timing. If communications are in response to specific events, the response must be timely. If this is a national/sector-wide concern, don’t wait until other universities have shared their responses. Waiting to see what others have written could lead to a generic response that loses its impact. If you don’t have a plan for quick, reactive (yet specific) communications which mean you can get out a response within the same day, you will not build confidence in your approach.

  • Purpose and scope. Be completely clear about why you’re communicating what you’re communicating. Putting something out for the sake of it will be obvious and trying to speak to multiple different audiences at once won’t work. You will most likely already know which of your communications channels are for what purpose – build sexual violence into this so that you can communicate to students, parents/carers, staff, stakeholders etc. quickly and appropriately.

  • Use your experts with their expertise. You will have experts in your organisations who have experience in talking with students about sensitive topics, you ill have experts who have experience in wider communications about sensitives topics - use their expertise.

  • Actions speak louder than words. This is often why generic statements aren't appreciated by students - they don't actually show the work that universities need to be doing. Showing previously examples of positive action taken isn't necessarily appropriate in response to a new concern. Of course what a university puts out in communications is incredibly important, but what universities actually do is, of course, even more vital.



This is not to say that universities shouldn’t be saying that “we take sexual violence really seriously”, but please do at least consider why you’re saying it, what it means in your context, and whether this is sufficient for something that genuinely needs to be taken really seriously.


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