Pro-Abortion Medical Students May Have Won the Battle, But Lost the PR War

Protesters at the University of Michigan knew how to drip the big news ahead of time, time the event right, have a dramatic video and alert the media. But the story doesn’t end there.

The University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium was the site of the medical school White Coat Welcome on July 24.
The University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium was the site of the medical school White Coat Welcome on July 24. (photo: Susan Montgomery / Shutterstock)

A few weeks ago, incoming medical students at the University of Michigan received a massive dose of media exposure. National outlets like CNN, NPR and NBC covered them, and a video starring the students has reportedly been viewed more than 16 million times.

The students didn’t cure cancer, invent a new medical procedure or save anyone’s life. Their walkout still received a lot of attention because they used effective public relations to promote their cause of legalized abortion. 

However, those who organized, praised and promoted the walkout seem to have missed that the real story isn’t the walkout itself, but rather what happened afterward. Instead of a celebratory moment for legalized abortion, the incident is far more instructive about the complexity of abortion politics — even on a campus that supports legalized abortion.

 

Here’s What Happened

Professor Kristen Collier was the keynote speaker at the university medical school’s July 24 White Coat Welcome ceremony for new students. She’s a pro-life feminist who believes that abortion is “violence directed at my prenatal sisters … done in the name of autonomy.” 

Some students were offended by Collier’s personal views, none of which were part of her speech. More than 300 current and incoming students signed a petition demanding a new event speaker, and when the university ignored their request, they were recorded walking out just as Collier began her speech.

On one level, this is a clear win for the dozens of students who left the ceremony. They got national exposure and put their point of view in front of millions of people.

But digging a little deeper, they may have won a short-term battle while Collier and the university won the war. A majority of students appear to have stayed for the speech, Collier wasn’t canceled, and the walkout put the university — which institutionally supports legalized abortion — in the position of defending Collier’s private speech and the decision to have her as the keynote speaker.

 

How the Students Won

The walkout drew significant attention because the organizers were well-prepared. The headlines could have been: Majority of incoming medical students ignore small number of walkouts over speaker’s abortion views.

Instead, the organizers received favorable national media coverage because they:

  • Circulated a petition before the event which gathered a substantial number of signatures among the incoming and current student body. This got the snowball rolling.
  • Had excellent timing, leaving when the big speech started at the big event. 
  • Promoted videos of the walkout. If a picture is worth a thousand words, video is worth 10,000. Even the short, low-quality clip showing the walkout makes the protesters’ point without having to say anything else.
  • Pushed a news hook that caught the attention of the media. Many outlets salivate over news favoring legalized abortion, especially with medical professionals involved, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision returning abortion laws to the states. 

On almost any public relations metric, the students won this battle. Nearly 17 million views and favorable national and state-level media coverage speak for themselves.

 

How Collier and the University Won

The four lessons described above are significant. Drip your big news ahead of time, time the event right, have a dramatic video and make sure the media hears about it.

But there are a few other lessons that favor Collier and the university.

First, don’t panic over negative media coverage. In our fast-paced, social media-driven news cycles, public opinion is often harsh but short-lived. Even more importantly, many critics are simply irrelevant to one’s core target markets. 

The walkout got a huge splash, but its effects on the university and Collier appear to be minimal. Almost all of the walkout’s media coverage took place between July 24 and July 26, and without anything new to report, the event will soon be forgotten. Most students appeared to stay for Collier’s speech. And the university’s choice to support Collier indicates that its core target audiences weren’t affected by the walkout. 

Second, stand your ground on core values. The university supports legalized abortion, yet it also stood up for its professor’s ability to express a personal opinion and keep her job. Its statement to the press included the following:

  • Collier was chosen to speak “based on nominations and voting by” a medical honor society “composed of medical students, house officers and faculty.” 
  • The university “does not revoke an invitation to a speaker based on their personal beliefs.”

In a time when handfuls of students and some keyboard warriors on Twitter can drive entire educational institutions into retreat, it’s refreshing to see the university choose courage over cowardice when the latter would be easier, at least in the short run. 

Third, tailor your message to your audience. If Collier had made her welcome speech a pro-life presentation, she would have made some pro-life advocates happy … and almost everyone else angry. Instead, her speech was focused on welcoming medical students, and she even appeared to respectfully acknowledge her critics. In choosing the right message for the right time and place, Collier came across well, even to at least one supporter of legalized abortion. University of California professor Vinay Prasad Tweeted that while he is “pro-choice,” students who walked out “missed a beautiful, transcendent talk.” 

 

Abortion Communications Will Continue to be Complex

It’s easy to say that one group or the other “won” this PR battle, because each side accomplished its goals. The students got the attention they wanted, Collier wasn’t replaced as the keynote speaker at a major event, and the university was probably able to walk away unhurt from the entire incident.

But the lesson for institutions — of higher education, government, business and elsewhere — goes well beyond this particular battle. From controversial issues like abortion to skyrocketing tuition, there are at least two perspectives on every matter. Senior executives must recognize this reality and, unless they are willing to open wide the doors of opinion about this touchy subject, stay out of it entirely.

The entire speech starts at 1:45:50 in the video below, and a transcript is available here.