November 2, 2015

Did U of L react correctly to Costumegate?

By Olivia Krauth–

While President James Ramsey’s Halloween costume choice has come under fire, some are also questioning the timing and sincerity of the apologies issued by the President’s Office.

Chief of Staff to the President Kathleen Smith was the first to apologize when a photo of Ramsey and staff dressed in stereotypical Mexican garb at the staff Halloween luncheon was circulated and criticized on Thursday.

“I write to express a sincere apology for the choice of Halloween costumes at our staff luncheon.  We made a mistake and are very sorry,” Smith said in an email addressed to Hispanic/Latino students and staff. The email was sent out over two hours after the photo began sweeping across social media, particularly Twitter.

Communication professor Karen Freberg, who studies social media and crisis communication, weighed in on U of L’s reaction from a public relations angle.

“Once the photo was discovered, the reactions online spread like wildfire and gained the attention at the local and national levels. Usually, if something like this happens, you usually see an immediate response by the main person (or organization) involved,” Freberg said. “Timing is crucial here – the longer you wait to give a response,  the more uncertainty arises with the audiences involved, which could escalate the emotions, discussion, and increase the awareness of the situation even further at the local and national level than before.”

“With the advancement of real-time information and the expectation and need for immediate responses from everyone involved, we have to make sure we disseminate and engage in our crisis communication efforts consistently and make sure we are where our audiences are at,” Freberg said, noting how much of the discussion was on Twitter.

Soon after Smith’s apology, local media outlets began questioning why Ramsey hadn’t made a statement. University spokesperson John Karman said Ramsey had traveled with the football team for Friday’s game and was unavailable for comment.

The following day, President James Ramsey sent an email to the U of L community, apologizing for the incident.

“I want to personally apologize for the recent incident and any pain that it may have caused our students, faculty, staff and the community. We did not intend to cause harm or to be insensitive,” Ramsey said. “I hope this doesn’t detract from the hard work we – the entire U of L community — have done and continue to do in building an inclusive, supportive, welcoming campus for all our university family. I pledge to work to ensure that we move forward as one university.”

The apology was sent to media moments before a student-led protest of the photo. U of L students and staff received the email about 20 minutes into the protest.

Although discussions of the photo and protests continued on Twitter, Ramsey’s apology was only emailed. Freberg said U of L should have said something on Twitter along with the email.

“You usually see a statement go out on the platform in which the crisis took place, which was on social media (particularly Twitter),” Freberg said. “However, President Ramsey’s statement to students and faculty at U of L came out via email, not on Twitter. In my research in crisis communications, audiences view different mediums with different levels of credibility, so we have to take this into account when preparing message strategies to key audiences in different situations.”

Protests and discussions continue tomorrow when student protesters are set to meet with Ramsey.


Photo courtesy / The Courier-Journal

1 thought on “Did U of L react correctly to Costumegate?

  1. I am more disappointed in the clumsy language of the crisis communications “expert” than in the actions of the President and staff. The word “usually” appears twice in one sentence. Once would have been sufficient. “Where are audiences are at…”? As my old English teacher used to say, “…they’re just in front of the ‘at’.” And “…different mediums” is not correct. The plural for “media” is “media.” I’d think that someone who is teaching communication would have these basics clearly in mind.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *