You are the president of an institution dealing with a crisis. Your instincts tell you a clarifying statement and potentially an apology are in order, as do members of your faculty, board, cabinet and student and alumni organizations.
But others on your leadership team, or even outside consultants, advise you to stay mum. The storm will blow over, they tell you, and even if an apology appears to be warranted, forgiveness will eventually come without the need for one.
You question your instincts long enough for a news cycle to pass without comment. But the silence advocates were wrong. By staying mum, you not only let others define the narrative, but you also forfeited your opportunity to lead. Rather than be open, you erected an unsympathetic, monolithic wall of silence. As a result, the fuse of the crisis continues to burn.
In two decades of working with clients on sensitive issues that can define a presidency and an institution, I have yet to find a situation where simply saying nothing has improved a situation, not even once in a blue moon. The advice to remain totally silent does not serve the community or benefit the institution. There is always a way to lead—to demonstrate care, compassion or humility as the moment may demand.
As a strategic consultant advising higher education clients on crisis communication, I counsel them to lead from values—to base their decisions on true authenticity. And there is no better moment to demonstrate authenticity than when facing a crisis.
Institutions hire consultants because the right path is not obvious or definitive. Sometimes the complexity of a crisis demands choosing the least bad of several bad choices. So, here are a couple of caveats. First, make sure you have a real crisis on your hands; the loudly expressed discontent of one or two powerful stakeholders rises to a lower level than a campuswide or communitywide clamor. Second, note that the need to speak out about an internal crisis differs from the delicate decision-making process for making a statement on an external, national crisis.
Crisis communications—whether a situation was created by institutional decisions or a so-called act of God—are a demonstration of vulnerability and a vehicle for authentic leadership. In a situation where an apology is warranted, contrition demonstrates authentic leadership in action. An action-oriented apology highlights your institution’s growth mind-set and commitment to continuous improvement. Active apologizing is often the most important gift that a leader can give to their community in times of challenge.
Being an authentic leader and showcasing your values in a potentially institution-defining moment requires speed. Moving quickly, following consultation with partners who understand the landscape, will help ensure a crisis doesn’t define your campus. The sooner you get the facts out, whether in a phased approach or all at once, the better. I counsel partners to adopt an “all of the above” approach to selecting avenues of communication: speaking with reporters, leveraging social media, sending emails and so on.
The public will appreciate how painful it was to come forward. Remember: any information you’re protecting may leak. And the chatterati will have their say regardless. Silence may be tempting as an alternative to ripping off the Band-Aid and finding the words to communicate. However, if you remain silent when your institutional voice should be ringing out, you will undoubtedly face uninformed speculation or damaging invective.
In their new book, Sorry, Sorry, Sorry: The Case for Good Apologies, Marjorie Ingall and Susan McCarthy offer a thoughtful, research-based formula for an effective personal apology that institutions would do well to follow: “1. Say you’re sorry. 2. For what you did. 3. Show you understand why it was bad. 4. Only explain if you need to; don’t make excuses. 5. Say why it won’t happen again. 6. Offer to make up for it.”
There’s a reason that Ingall and McCarthy’s Step 1 above is not “Clam up and wait for better days.” And institutions should be cautious not to overexplain and weaken their apology (Step 4). Finally, as Step 6 prescribes, be ready to talk about your institutional introspection and what will be different in the wake of the crisis. The bold choice to get out front early, apologize and share your values with the public will make them all the more receptive to your efforts to improve and move on.
Sean Rossall is CEO and managing partner of the RW Jones Agency, now in its fourth decade of serving colleges and universities. Launched by Richard W. Jones in 1987 as Dick Jones Communications, the agency has grown from a marketing and media relations support provider into a full-service strategic consultancy of more than 25 professionals.