Let Your Communications Professionals Tell the Truth—It’s their Job
Communications professionals must advocate for telling the truth and be supported when they do so.
I’m thinking about having t-shirts printed so I can hand them out to a number of my colleagues at the next conference I attend. They will say, “I get paid to tell the truth, so get your money’s worth.”
My colleagues and I work with a number of institutions on proactive and reactive communications and these days we are encountering three roadblocks at increasing and alarming rates. All three are warning signs for our team that our efforts to advocate for transparent communications may be at risk.
The first recipient of my t-shirt will be our colleagues who worry that sharing their counsel will put them at odds with their bosses. The reality is that we get paid to play devil’s advocate and are tasked with pushing for clear and truthful communications. Anyone who has “communications” or “public relations” in their title and isn’t advocating for the truth should look for a new job. Our bosses have the prerogative to follow our advice or not, but at the very least they should be presented with our best thinking and make that decision for themselves. Truthfulness is a core tenet of our jobs and we must live it if we want to have a say during a crisis.
We’ve all sat alongside that senior-level colleague who agrees profusely with the president despite evidence and data that indicate they should do otherwise. It’s infuriating and tremendously dangerous. Presidents need their senior staff to serve as litmus tests and gut checks or their tenures may come to premature ends.
This means that we may have to tactfully tell our bosses how a situation is being viewed by our campus community or those outside of our campus boundaries, when an apology needs to be issued and how best to live its words, and when our words or actions aren’t being believed and what underlying reality has set us on that path. It also means we need to explain to our superiors when they need to talk to the media and why, especially if they believe a reporter has an ulterior motive. It is my experience that reporters are looking for good stories and not for administrators’ heads on stakes—unless, of course, the administrator makes the situation personal. Once it’s personal, all bets are off.
The second recipient of my t-shirt is the communications professional who doesn’t have direct access to the president and has experienced varying degrees of success with their boss serving as intermediary. Even if they and their supervisor subscribe to a policy of honesty, there are still two filters and a natural time delay that dilutes and delays messages intended for the president. I understand protocol but during a crisis, protocol within communications can cause escalation of the situation.
I have a colleague who has extremely strong instincts on how to listen to a campus community and draft communications that address their concerns. She is a tremendous advocate for incorporating feedback into communications, can anticipate campus unrest before it bubbles to the surface and has the ability to match strategy to any situation. Yet, her campus is repeatedly tripped up in part because her advice never makes it to the level of the cabinet and her insight isn’t shared with her president. The structure of their organizational chart stymies her ability to contribute and her institution’s efforts to communicate with its community.
The final recipient of my newly designed t-shirt is my colleague who is asked to spin a situation by the board or leadership. We are truthful storytellers and bristle when asked to scale back transparency, obscure our words or their meaning, or bury the lede. If asked to frame a situation in an untruthful way, my colleagues and I will push back against telling a story that is no longer in the best interest of the institution or doesn’t have the best interest of our faculty, staff or students in mind. Telling the truth sometimes stings, but lying or spinning can be fatal to a career.
I would never advocate for an institution hurting itself in a court of law or court of public opinion. We can truthfully communicate with our campuses, talk to the media, and share our stories in ways that balance transparency and our obligations to our campus community. It doesn’t have to be an all or none situation. Let your communicators share your institution’s truth. After all, it’s what they get paid to do.
Speaking of seeing colleagues at conferences… I’m going to be leading a roundtable discussion at the Council of Independent Colleges and American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ annual College Media Conference on July 1st. Please drop me a note if you would like to say “hello” or pitch a piece for this blog. I’m open to both!
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