Date of Award

Fall 12-9-2021

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

School

Communication

Committee Chair

Dr. David R. Davies

Committee Chair School

Communication

Committee Member 2

Dr. Cheryl Jenkins

Committee Member 2 School

Communication

Committee Member 3

Dr. Lindsey Maxwell

Committee Member 3 School

Communication

Committee Member 4

Dr. Edgar Simpson

Committee Member 4 School

Communication

Committee Member 5

Dr. Fei Xue

Committee Member 5 School

Communication

Abstract

This dissertation utilizes W.T. Coombs’s Strategic Crisis Communication Theory to examine the public relations strategies and effectiveness of Mississippi’s three largest public universities, the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, and the University of Southern Mississippi, related to the historic decision to retire the state of Mississippi’s flag in 2020. Facing significant reputational threat and public pressure from students and faculty, the universities became public advocates for a new state flag in 2015 and 2016, when each chose to refrain from flying the flag—a flag that featured the Confederate battle emblem for more than 100 years—on its campuses. The universities then became a pivotal force for legislative action in favor of a new flag in 2020, when the universities’ affiliated athletics organizations—the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Southeastern Conference, and Conference USA—all threatened to withhold postseason play from the state, a decision that would have resulted in millions of dollars in associated, positive economic impact lost by Mississippi (Scarborough, 2020). That year, the university institutional executive officers, along with athletics administrators and coaches, lobbied lawmakers at the State Capitol in the week leading up to a historic vote for a new flag by state legislators (Kenney, 2020).

In conducting this case study, the researcher examined four sources of data, covering a time period from 2015 to 2020: 1. Public statements and other official press releases from university officials on university websites; 2. Media coverage, including a content analysis of 132 news articles; 3. Facebook posts and feedback; and 4. Interviews with all three institutional executive officers at the time of flag change in January 2021.

This dissertation demonstrates that each university ultimately utilized an aggressive public relations strategy, classified by the researcher using the Coombs’ categorization as a rebuild strategy, to public relations success, especially considering the institutions’ problematic prior history regarding issues of race, as well as their ongoing relationships with students, faculty, and athletics-affiliated organizations, which were pushing administrators toward greater advocacy for a change to Mississippi’s flag.

Available for download on Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Included in

Communication Commons

Share

COinS