Like most of the higher education community, I have kept tabs on the changes underway at New College of Florida. The politically aligned shifts in leadership, academic offerings and approach to mission fulfillment for the liberal arts campus have been significant and swift.
One of the changes included the recruitment and hiring of a new vice president for communications, which occurred approximately two months ago. The person selected for this role was fired by the college Monday. When talking to the local media, he commented, “I was told I was not hired to be concerned with school morale, and I was told I was not hired to set the strategy for the school. I was hired to go toe-to-toe with the media and I was hired to, quote, call them out for their lies.”
I winced when reading how the roles and responsibilities of the vice president were described, because it is the most egregious and manipulative way to describe the responsibilities for a senior communications professional. And I also found these misperceptions were relatable to other situations I’ve faced.
While the situation at New College is complex and unique, the request from the institution’s leadership aligns some of the misconceptions I hear more generally about the field of communications and the use of public relations. And I would argue we have a responsibility to push back on these views of our roles and our work. Like the fired vice president, we may be asked to treat reporters like adversaries and to spin what is covered in the media. Spinning is a request to withhold or misrepresent the truth in an effort to present a more flattering story for the leader or institution. That’s not public relations. Our jobs need to be rooted in honesty—it’s the basis for the trust we build with reporters and the institution’s audiences, and it is the ethical way for us to approach the fulfillment of our responsibilities.
For organizations facing crisis, these misconceptions often cast public relations professionals as filling one of many archetypes, which may be lived in positive or negative ways. I recently talked about four of these roles on the Servant Marketer podcast, including:
- The keeper of silver bullets. There are some perceptions that those of us who work in communications have perfect solutions that we pull out at our discretion to solve complex problems instantly and easily. Specific to media and the New College situation, some believe this skill set includes the ability to kill a legitimate story or to prevent a media clip from being read or viewed.
- The devil’s advocate. This person’s role is to poke holes in less than stellar plans and fill those same holes with productive options. Someone can only be successful in this role if the leadership team is open to pushback, which the ABC piece suggests isn’t the leadership approach at New College today.
- The bad guy. Most often this is the person who says no when a bad idea is presented by senior leaders and takes the heat for saving them from disastrous consequences. Or, in the case of New College, the leadership may believe this is the person who can go “toe-to-toe with the media” in defense of the college. Those of us in this industry know this approach is more likely to generate more, not less, coverage that is critical in tone.
- The influencer plays a significant—and perhaps too large—role in helping leaders make strategic decisions. New College’s human resources made clear this was not an expectation for a vice president for communications. Used appropriately, I believe this is exactly the role of a vice president for communications.
While each archetype may contain a distorted perception of what communications leaders do, all of them lead to misconceptions of the utility of our positions and the actual impact we can have. These misunderstandings can slow progress toward solutions, create tensions within leadership teams and potentially lead to being fired.
Regardless of the ever-present archetype misconceptions, we all have a responsibility to affirm what a public relations professional really does and push back on the requests to work nefariously. Our job is to disseminate a message, a brand or emergent information in a clear and concise way. Whether that is niche technical jargon, an emergency on campus, a leadership transition or a major brand overhaul, we are able to communicate complex messages to stakeholders to increase understanding, relatability and buy-in. After all, we’re more than archetypes and should be treated as professionals who bring our talent, expertise, relationships and experience to share truthful messages. I would consider it a badge of honor to get fired for delivering on those expectations.