St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a fine, public liberal arts institution, faced a big problem.  Mold sickened students and displaced 250 of them from their dorm rooms.  What did the college do?  It found a cruise ship to provide temporary housing while they remediate the mold problem.

The college’s communications solution was a brilliant move on several fronts.  It raised the spirits of frustrated students who were placed in hotels, some of them 20 miles away from campus, solved a real problem, and it landed the college front page Metro section coverage in the Washington Post, generating positive buzz about the school.   The college, which prides itself as being a center for scholarship and sailing and on being a strong community,  was able to reinforce its unique selling proposition through its creative handling of this crisis.  And renting the ship will cost less than the hotel bills.

What could have been a PR disaster has turned into a PR boon.

How to Turn PR Lemons into Lemonade

1) Stay true to your brand promise.

When dealing with a crisis or introducing a new product or service, it is important to act in keeping with your brand promise.  Putting students on a cruise ship would not have been the right decision for another university whose identity wasn’t so tied to the water.

2) Be willing to look solutions and ideas outside of the box.

The college’s first reaction was to put students in hotels, a logical solution that allowed them to move students quickly and get them away from a dangerous health situation.  While the hotels solved one problem, it created another–long commutes and fracturing the college community.  When College officials heard that a boat was for sale and on its way to Virginia, College president Joseph Urgo acted quickly to see if they could use the boat for a period of time.

3) Communicate, Communicate, Communicate.

The College’s Web site is full a great information for students and others about the mold problem.  The communications are clear, contain frequent updates and continually reinforce the values and strengths of the school.   They didn’t back away from the problem or try to push it under the rug.  They dealt with it and were very transparent about it.  There is an open comments page and not all comments are positive and they are using Facebook as well.

Bad things happen.  The real lesson of St. Mary’s College is that what matters is how you deal with them.

What do you think? Do you have examples of successful and creative crisis management?