An Open Letter to Top Administrators

As COVID rages on, treating your communications team simply as campus mouthpieces is a missed opportunity and can have significant impact, argue Teresa Valerio Parrot and Erin Hennessy.

October 20, 2020
 
 
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Dear presidents and senior leaders,

Recently, an anonymous university communicator’s letter to The New York Times Magazine’s “The Ethicist” column asked whether they are obligated to promote their institution’s reopening plan even if they don’t believe in it. Many colleagues spent significant time trying to guess the identity of the unnamed campus spokesperson. We engaged in some idle speculation, as well, but quickly came to realize how irrelevant identifying the letter writer or their institution really was.

Why? Because our colleague and the issue they raised deserve better. Because we know the writer could be any or all of our clients and, at times, even us. Because the letter was an honest, industrywide reflection of the communications profession right now.

Higher education leaders everywhere should read that letter as a very real signal that you’re dealing with a massive amount of burnout, frustration and disenchantment from those who lead your communications team and from the people they manage. Right now they are feeling expendable -- as if their good counsel and hard questions about decisions aren’t welcome.

These individuals have been working endless hours for months, often pivoting on a moment’s notice and sometimes multiple times a day. They feel excluded from conversations and, ultimately, the decisions that they’re going to have to live with every day. And they’re taking incoming criticism, anger and frustration from every one of your audiences and feeling powerless to address or ameliorate it. Some don’t even have any access at all to their institution’s decision makers.

Relegating your communications team to simply packaging and implementing communications is a missed opportunity and can have significant impact. There are very real consequences to feeling dismissed and undervalued -- and that’s where your team may find itself when the window that remains before planning, communicating and executing a spring semester closes rapidly. You’re doing yourself, your institution and your students and employees a disservice by not including those who perform social listening, who read the data on how various constituencies are receiving your decisions and who have connections across your campus.

These talented professionals deserve to be involved as you’re considering your spring announcements. You should be engaging them as you determine important policies, protocols and guidance for your community. You should be tapping their expertise and asking them for their perception of how the fall semester went and for insights from their analytics. Ideally, they should be at the table as you’re processing the pros and cons of your spring semester decision -- not just sent into battle once it’s time to communicate it.

They’re going to be the people who are pushing out the announcements during these challenging times and taking the heat on your behalf. They can help you anticipate your community’s reaction so you can refine your approach and language -- or plan for how you’ll respond if you can’t or won’t adjust your plans based on feedback.

Communicators will also force the question of why you and other top administrators are making the decisions you are -- including whether the choice to return to campus was driven by financial considerations and how that does or doesn’t align with the community’s perceptions of what’s in the best interest of the students and the institution. A significant part of your communicators’ role is to share what people are saying in the court of public opinion and probe the ethical basis of the decisions that your institution is making. And that input is most effective early in the discussion.

Communicators who were not in the room when the approach to fall reopening was discussed and were instead brought in to implement a plan and disseminate information are in an entirely different position from those who provided input and expertise. Those included in decision-making discussions could craft plans and messages of which they could be proud. Those left out have more in common with the anonymous university spokesperson reaching out to the Times than they do with colleagues who have been valued for their knowledge.

You have a choice to make, and choosing to pair with communicators earlier in the process is a boon for you. Communicators’ expertise and insights can help to protect the institution’s reputation and, therefore, yours. If they weren’t in the room over the summer, don’t repeat that mistake as you make crucial decisions about the future of your institution and set your own trajectory as a leader.

You have, at most, a few weeks before you must make decisions about spring and communicate them, and less than three months before major, detailed plans must be in place and ready for implementation. You improve the chances for success for the institution and yourself by allowing your communicators to do their jobs as strategic partners.

Bio

Teresa Valerio Parrot is the principal, and Erin Hennessy is the vice president, of TVP Communications, a national public relations and crisis communications agency solely focused on higher education.

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