Communications Considerations for Boards

Board members have agreed to serve to make a difference. Don’t just let them -- help them do it.

August 6, 2015

Earlier this week, the Association of Governing Boards for Universities and Colleges (AGB) released guidelines for the fiduciary roles and responsibilities of governing board members. Based on the many ways in which boards have been publicly scrutinized for their oversight roles as of late and the scenarios in which some institutions have been exposed as vulnerable, the document can serve as a how-to guide to strong governance. 

(Note that in the wrong hands it can also serve as a how-to guide to micromanagement. I’ll assume in this post that board members will read the document as intended, but will leave you with that subtle warning.)

The topic of appropriately strong governance is near and dear to my heart, as my almost decade-long training and work for a public university system was performed predominantly in support of the statewide governing board of regents. I worked directly for a board and among my many duties was serving as go-between and facilitator of requests for the regents and the campuses. Often I found that those board members who took to heart guidelines like those released by AGB were often seen as problem children by fellow board members and by the administration.

I always gave special attention to those board members, because their passion for the institution and their strong and influential networks had the potential to do good but sometimes inadvertently caused trouble. The best-intentioned board members may publicly charge to the rescue of the institution only to find
that his or her approach wasn’t well-received by
the media, the public, or other board members. This means as communications professionals, we have a responsibility—if given the blessing by the president and board chair—to appropriately staff board members so they can provide the greatest assistance to the institution while appropriately fulfilling their responsibilities.

Within the AGB document is the following guideline (on page 11):

Secure on a timely basis the advice of knowledgeable experts who can increase the level of understanding and competence of board members on key issues, which may include compensation of the president, strategic planning, academic quality, construction of new facilities and development of property, marketing and communications, advocacy, legal compliance, fundraising and endowment management, and risk management.

This bullet is a call to action for all of us to be proactive in sharing information and staffing board members so that they can perform their roles as fiduciaries and counsel.

This means sharing news clips for your institution as well as key stories from across the country so that their questions and inquiries about the vitality of your institution are as strong and deep as possible. Don’t pick and choose topics based on your college’s strengths or vulnerabilities, but instead include a healthy perspective that reflects the totality of issues facing boards and institutions.

Also, consider media training your board members and defining specific communications roles for them. Is your board chair the only member who can speak on behalf of the board and do all board members know that rule? Do you have a chair of a committee that includes communications and if so, how does their role complement the chair’s communications responsibilities? Within your board’s committee structure, develop communications roles and responsibilities for all board members.

And from a practical standpoint, ask to present critically important communications plans (like presidential hirings and firings; major, and I mean major, gift announcements; and any communications of note regarding finances) directly to the board so that they have confidence that the institution is prepared and understand their role in making the plan successful.  

Within these briefings, start with your overarching strategy, describe the core language of the announcement, include talking points for their use with the media (as appropriate) and ways to discuss the news within their own business and social circles. Describe if you will be proactively or reactively approaching the media and the rationale for your strategy.

By providing board members with the information they need and outlining the appropriate ways for board members to engage, you’ve removed concerns about ambiguity from their minds and positioned them to bolster the strength of your institution. Board members have agreed to serve to make a difference. Don’t just let them—help them do it.


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