Public relations officers and college presidents have spent so much time over the last two years focused on empathetic and compassionate communications that our initial reaction to every national crisis seems to be, “We need a statement.”
But while holding is an important leadership principle, it must not always take the form of a community email. Sometimes our people need space, sometimes they need one another and sometimes they need to hear from their president or dean. When deciding whether to issue a statement, consider the following test, which was compiled over a period of years throughout my career. While the language is my own, this topic has been referenced by other professionals in a number of formats. I do not claim copyright but instead share my experiences and how I’ve adapted and expanded industry conversations over the years.
Questions to ask:
- Is the critical event relevant to higher education?
- What is the circle of influence: Is it a local, regional, national or international issue?
- Why would we want to communicate about the event?
- What are our peers doing?
- Do the words reflect the tone and personality of the leader and the college?
- Would a statement by the college add to the conversation?
- Is the college positioned to affect change?
- Does the event directly affect our community, students, employees? Note: If it affects alumni and no one else, it usually should be considered indirect.
- Is the college taking any action to support the affected the community?
- Will the statement be perceived as discriminating against another group?
- If a statement is issued, what will be the institutional response to push back?
For example, our college applied this thinking when deciding to put out a statement about the recent murders in Buffalo, N.Y., but not about this week’s killings at the elementary school in Uvalde, Tex. Buffalo is only a few hours away, and the shooting was racially motivated. Our college does not take a political stance on gun control, but we do stand against racism in any form, which in this instance is an indictment of premeditated murder.
It is important to recognize that any horrific event may be felt deeply by one, many or all of our employees and students. However, without testing against pre-agreed standards, an institutional statement may be perceived as performative and unbacked. Over time such statements will foster an untenable expectation and, even worse, erode credibility. When no statement is offered, colleges should consider other forms of authentic support for community members. Times of national sorrow may be appropriate moments for divisional leaders to communicate compassion to smaller groups, host a group counseling session, give individuals space to process grief or just listen.
Melissa Farmer Richards serves as vice president for communications and marketing at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.