Recently I was on a Zoom call with a faculty member, and we started talking about the notion of responding rather than reacting. Reacting elicits emotion; responding puts you in charge of a situation. While he was talking about it in the context of politics, I started thinking of what that means for communicators. Communications professionals should be compassionate, but it is very hard to do our jobs when emotions are running. Between the presidential election, social justice issues and the pandemic, there’s a lot we’re reacting to right now with the never-ending breaking news cycle. We need to shift to a response mind-set rather than reacting so we can execute our jobs more effectively.
First, we all need to take a deep breath. Then get your reaction off your chest so you can focus on how to respond. I like to do this by having a gut check with one of my colleagues. A quick check-in with someone you work closely with or someone who knows the industry can prove to be very valuable in these situations.
During this pandemic, and quite frankly, anytime, communicators do not want to be caught back on their heels. You should -- and need to -- be at the table when your president and senior administrators are making decisions so you are able to craft a thoughtful plan. That way you are coming up with the response in advance and not reacting to the plans once they are made. To do this you must show your senior leadership that you understand their goals and that strategic communication is the best way to streamline this process. Build these relationships early on so when there is a crisis you are already at the table.
Although every crisis is different, you should create a plan for your campus, know who on your campus is in charge of each aspect and practice regularly. Almost anything can go awry, but rehearsing helps you to respond when -- not if -- a crisis happens on your campus. Sometimes you are too close to an issue to see your vulnerabilities, so have a third party review your plans or lead the practice.
Don’t be afraid to pause to reflect before you respond to the media. When a reporter calls or emails me to ask some questions, I tell them I will get back to them soon. I take the time to think about my response rather than being caught off guard and saying whatever comes to my mind. I think of my key points and the message I want to get across and practice, practice, practice. I like to joke around, and I know how that can be taken out of context in an interview, so I prepare myself to not make jokes or fill an awkward silence. When I’m done answering the question, I’m done. The same applies when you get an email; you do not need to respond right away. Take your time to think about a response. You want to be first to help shape the story, but not at the risk of getting it wrong.
Be mindful of specific topics that could heighten emotion and be strategic with your planning around them. For topics that are recurring and can be anticipated, like election season, you should get your faculty on the radar of key reporters well in advance. For others that are not as structured, take time to brainstorm what issues and topics could pop up -- think of what you’re seeing regularly in the news and which faculty members have appropriate expertise. Establish connections early with faculty and reporters wherever possible so that they will turn to you when they need help sharing their expertise or an expert for their article. Chasing and keeping up with the news is challenging, and having key contacts will help mitigate stress and prepare you to respond rather than react.
COVID-19 has brought out an increasing number of experts in higher education; from health issues and vaccines to economic impact to the president’s response, our experts are getting called on more than ever. They are also writing more, which means the op-ed pages have become even more competitive. So, it’s important to take the time to scope out op-eds and first-person narratives with faculty and administrators -- and to be clear about the difference. We all get unsolicited op-eds and essays, but try to set a structure with professors for discussing an idea and possible placement, as well as prepare for potential reactions from a target audience. Plan a timeline and establish the expectation that they’ll send you their angle so you can pre-pitch the idea while they’re writing or ideally before they write. It’s certainly not a guarantee for placement, but you can better gauge interest in a topic and hopefully save time and effort for all parties.
When you do receive an unsolicited op-ed, realize that it’s a good sign that your experts want to write, but set expectations at the beginning so the process does not become emotional for you or the faculty member. Ask up front whether they are open to your edits and suggestions, and if they’re not, be honest about what can realistically be done with the piece. If the topic is over-written about, tell them and ask if they can take the piece in another direction that might be placeable. If a draft really needs a lot of work, provide high-level but specific feedback. If the piece really isn’t a fit, be honest and explain how you can help them with a piece in the future to help stop a negative reaction and damaging a relationship.
We are all used to moving at a ridiculously fast pace, but taking the time to make sure you are responding thoughtfully rather than reacting hastily will pay off for you and your institution in the long run.
Cristal Steuer is a senior strategist at TVP Communications; a former television producer, she has worked in higher education for more than 15 years.