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The impact of “The Hunting Ground” documentary on universities



On January the 23rd 2015, the controversial documentary, the Hunting Ground was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary film showcases the prevalence of sexual assault at U.S. college campuses and university boards attempts to cover up the crimes.

The Hunting Ground follows the accounts of multiple university students who have allegedly been sexually assaulted either while on campus, at their college or an off-campus party. The documentary has gained widespread attention for calling out top U.S universities such as Harvard and Florida State University for their unfair sexual assault policies and procedures.

However, some (namely the universities in question and their supporters) have argued that the documentary grossly exaggerates the sexual assault problem at universities as well as only giving one sided accounts of the alleged sexual assault crimes.

Although critics have labelled the documentary as purporting a ‘moral panic’ – in which an issue is greatly embellished to incite fear and panic within the public - it is however, misinformed to believe that sexual assault is not currently occurring on college campuses. Sexual assault is a major issue that all universities should be addressing. The Hunting Ground, despite it’s alleged misconceptions and errors is putting an important issue in the limelight. This is an inherently good thing.

In 2014, an analysis of the data required by the Clery Act (Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics) by AAUW (American Association of University Women), found that 91% of college campuses disclosed zero reported incidents of rape in 2014. This means that universities are claiming not one instance of sexual assault occurred in a whole year across thousands of colleges. In just one example, Florida State University only reported 14 cases of sexual assault to the government out of a total of 113 reports that were filed in 2014.

The Hunting Ground is essentially campaigning for universities to improve their policies and procedures on sexual assault for student safety. All universities have a duty to ensure that when a student walks onto a campus or goes back to their college dorm they feel safe, and know the university has taken measures to protect them from harm. Any instance of sexual assault no matter how often it occurs can infringe upon a student’s right to feel safe whilst getting an education.

The significant popularity of the documentary provides a platform for universities to guide and inform new contemporary sexual assault polices as well as detection and mitigation strategies. The University of Colorado, recently implemented compulsory bystander intervention training for all new students after conducting a survey which showed high rates of sexual assault but low rates of bystander intervention at one of their campuses. The Hunting Ground is a great opportunity for universities to improve the culture of their campuses by implementing similar tactics.

Unfortunately, one of the major obstacles (witnessed in US colleges) to fair treatment of sexual assault cases is the celebrity status of star athletes and the athletic departments in which they reside. There is evidence to suggest that when it comes to sexual assault cases in the United States, if the alleged perpetrator is a star football or basketball player or even a star coach, upholding the brand of the university becomes more important than the protection of students (see University of Tennessee, Baylor University and more).

The covering up of instances of sexual assault by a university can become synonymous with perpetuating and even cultivating a culture of sexual violence in the eyes of the media and the public. As seen in the Hunting Ground, once an issue is discovered by the media – the brands of universities (no matter how exaggerated the alleged cases or statistics may be) are already in danger of being tarnished. Implementing specialized policies and procedures to address sexual assault (i.e. compulsory consent information sessions for students, fair reporting method procedures etc.) is a better way to sustain brand reputation than trying to cover it up.

The Hunting Ground and the issue of sexual assault at universities has garnered extensive media coverage both in the U.S. and around the world. The issue of sexual assault at university campuses is not limited to the U.S. – other countries such as Australia, England and Ireland have all been identified by the media as problem areas for sexual assault at universities. This increase in negative publicity puts universities in the spotlight which can impact their reputation and in turn their enrolment numbers.

However, scrutiny does not begin and end with the media. As a result of the increasing attention surrounding the issue, many universities and colleges are now dealing with multiple lawsuits made by previous students and investigations by the U.S. government. This type of attention can damage universities more than media stories or a documentary. It can be argued however that the media stories and the documentary were the catalyst for the U.S government’s investigation into over a hundred universities and colleges unfair policies and the lawsuits filed by alleged victims of sexual assault.

The issue then turns to how universities manage the added media and public scrutiny that comes with the release of the documentary. A crisis such as the alleged sexual assault epidemic and resulting media circus puts universities policies and procedures under a magnifying glass. Knowing how to handle a sensitive issue such as sexual assault is crucial in being able to simultaneously maintain brand reputation and protect student safety. It can be argued that Florida State University got their response to the Hunting Ground extremely wrong.

There are multiple ways to respond to a crisis – however when a crisis is in the form of a documentary, numerous news articles, government investigations and lawsuits accusing universities of covering up instances of sexual assault it is particularly difficult to respond in a way that preserves brand reputation. FSU found out this the hard way after vehemently denying all allegations made by the documentary – which essentially proves the point of the documentary, that universities are attempting to cover up sexual assault. It also didn’t help that FSU ended up paying the alleged victim $US 950,000.

It must be said that when a crisis occurs no matter how big or small – silence or keeping quiet is not always the best approach. Once the Hunting Ground was released most major universities took a stance and relayed this to their key stakeholders – in this case, students, employees and parents. Denial or poor management on an issue such as sexual assault is detrimental especially when major stakeholders will be likely to question the universities standpoint and even scrutinize the current policies and procedures they have in place.

As the Hunting Ground Documentary is set to be released here in Australia – with screenings forecast for the coming months across the nation – Universities Australia (the peak body representing the Australian University sector) has released a campaign called “Respect. Now. Always.” which aims to prevent sexual assault on campuses.

Although this is a step in the right direction, the campaign will not stop the potential increase in media attention and scrutiny once the documentary is released. The documentary has the potential to highlight the prevalence of sexual assault on Australian campuses and how universities have been managing these occurrences. One story of an alleged victim not being treated fairly by an Australian university is all it takes to ruin brand reputation.

Brand preservation is key. So how will you respond? And how will you ensure your response preserves your brand as a safe and leading University.

Find out what the best response for your university would be by calling Briggs Communications today. We offer specialized crisis communication plans and expert media training to assist with any type of crisis. Get ahead of the game, book your free consultation now. Don’t let a potential crisis like the Hunting Ground tarnish your University.

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