When a crisis (or perceived crisis) hits a campus, the go-to prioritization for leaders’ communications seems to be media first with all other audiences following a distant and undifferentiated second.
I adamantly disagree with this approach.
Faculty, staff and students should never learn of vital campus news through the media and should always feel as if they are the primary audience for communications. Outreach to them should be followed by messages tailored specifically for alumni, donors and parents of current students, then community members, the general public and the media. Putting those most closely associated with the institution in a position of not knowing what is happening or what is coming next leads to waning confidence in leadership and faltering relationships.
It’s not surprising that often the short- and long-term external reputation repair associated with a crisis occurs before the trust within an institution is rebuilt. Neither occurs quickly, but people can be convinced that bad things happen to good institutions much more rapidly than they forget the sense of being abandoned when leadership was most needed.
For example, I recently heard of an institution that received negative feedback from a report the president commissioned on a potentially explosive topic on campus. The campus leaders instructed the faculty committee overseeing the report’s completion to hold off on sharing the findings with the community while they decided how to address the report’s critiques. The faculty complied for over six months, all the while waiting for an update from the administration. With a lack of response, a member of the committee leaked the report to the media.
Rather than communicating about the report, an overview of its findings and next steps in addressing the conclusions, the campus hunkered down and issued a succession of one and two sentence statements that didn’t provide any clarity to the situation or demonstrate leadership. And responses to direct questions from the media were limited to one-word answers and partial responses.
The reluctance to be transparent fueled a series of articles that grew in scope, eventually exposing the full vulnerability of the institution in that situation and their lack of progress towards any real solutions. The campus community learned of the report findings and the extent of the institution’s vulnerability through the media, not from its leaders. What the institution feared having discovered was splashed publicly, and along the way their credibility took a serious hit.
Of course, there are limits. A colleague of mine talked about the incessant request from internal audiences to address rumors on campus, some of which were outside the scope and purview of the institution’s responsibilities. In this case, he and I discussed how the initial lack of communication had created a situation in which gossip thrived and half-truths gained traction. Resetting expectations for appropriate disclosure is going to be difficult—much like putting toothpaste back in the tube.
In the end, if you think your campus might want to know information, consider how best to share it. I’d rather the ugly truth be shared than to follow an ugly rumor or lie with the ugly truth. In the end, that’s a whole lot of ugly without any gain.