Less than a month ago, Syracuse University faced a crisis moment. Unauthorized gatherings on and off campus threatened to jeopardize the school’s reopening plans.
But because it had been out ahead in its communications throughout the summer – warning about potential spread of COVID-19 and laying down the ground rules for returning – Syracuse was ready.
Its response was swift and straightforward. Its carefully crafted messaging not only resonated across campus but screamed across social media and news websites.
“We have one shot to make this happen. Be adults. Be better,” said J. Michael Haynie, Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation. “Think of someone other than yourself. And also, do not test the resolve of this university to take swift action to prioritize the health and well-being of our campus and Central New York community.”
Syracuse stood tall and violators backed down. They got the message. In fact, since the launch of its COVID-19 dashboard – one more important piece in the long line of communication between the university and students – Syracuse has done well in delivering information and in keeping its campus safe. On Sunday, it reported no positive cases of COVID-19.
The university’s consistently strong and forward-looking messages caught the attention of Sandy Lish, principal and co-founder of The Castle Group, a public relations leader whose daughter also happens to attend Syracuse. Its all-encompassing, no-nonsense approach to outreach is something she sees from her more successful higher education clientele.
“I’ll give a shout out to Syracuse because the communications have been outstanding,” Lish says. “I feel like every day almost, we’re hearing about what’s going on. They have an authentic tone. They’re readable. It doesn’t sound like a PR person wrote them. It doesn’t sound like a lawyer wrote them. And it’s informative. It makes me feel like they they’ve got it covered. With other institutions, I don’t have that sense. It’s very interesting to see the difference.”
Lish says the importance of universities to be able to connect with those they serve can’t be undersold, especially in a time of crisis and in critical announcements such as the decisions to go remote or the cancellation of spring breaks. Consistent communication shows strength of leadership and character in a college or university.
“With higher education, where families are spending a lot of money to send their students there, the stakes are really high,” she says. “As a parent, as a student, as a faculty member, as a funder, if I feel like I’m not giving good information, I can go somewhere else or go nowhere. Leading through a crisis is really important.”
Part of that responsibility includes being able to look ahead. It is why, even during the middle of a pandemic and dealing with situations as they arise, Lish says institutions should be focused on their messaging for 2021 because it is expected.
“College leaders need to look ahead because all of their stakeholders are looking ahead,” Lish says. “Everybody’s wondering what’s next. Even though nobody has a crystal ball, you have to provide some answers. If the answer can’t be definitive, the answer has to be about at least your process for getting to an answer.”
The importance of communication
Strong messaging has helped Syracuse and others, such as the Cal State University system, be able to control events that have unfolded as well as plan for the future. Others that have been less succinct in their communications or late in delivering them to stakeholders, have caused confusion among staff, faculty, students and parents. They might need to look beyond campus walls for assistance.
The Castle Group and similar firms provide an objective view of higher education because they work across other industries. They offer unique perspectives as outside voices. They are adept at both structuring coherent communications plans for colleges and universities and helping them pivot quickly during critical moments.
“When you’re in the middle of crisis, you need bandwidth, you need smart people, you need excellent writers, and you need people who understand the industry,” Lish says. “Especially now, when schools are having to lay off, and their teams might be a little thinner, we’re basically an adjunct team that really becomes part of the organization and is there for whatever they need.”
Like many of the stakeholders that colleges and universities serve, Lish and her team have been looking ahead at plans for the coming weeks and well into 2021. With the pandemic still evolving, a potentially divisive election upcoming, and myriad socioeconomic issues to contend with, formulating a strategy for messaging is critical. To help further assist leaders, Lish spoke with University Business to offer some guidance to higher ed leaders looking for tips on how to best prep for and deliver vital communications:
- Preplanned communication strategy and structure. “Some universities have a weekly President’s message. Some have town hall meetings or an infrastructure in place alumni magazines, alumni meetings. Make sure there’s consistent messaging where communications are already occurring so everyone is hearing the same thing. That means heads of advancement, deans, enrollment, communications, cabinet. Not everything needs to be scripted tightly, but where there’s already communications, there needs to be consistency of message.”
- Be truthful. Transparency and honesty are key principles not just for the education space and higher education but for any business. Its employees, its customers, its students, its patients, expect that now. There are so many ways we have to communicate with our stakeholders – social media, webinars, town halls, dear community letters – that there’s an expectation that if something’s going on, we should be hearing about it in a timely manner. When something isn’t authentic, honest and transparent, it creates more issues. A lack of information means people will fit it with their own ideas. Tone and authenticity are really important too. I tell my clients, if you don’t know the answer, say so. But say something. If you’re not saying something, then people wonder what they are hiding.”
- Know your audience. “You can’t be tone deaf. If there’s something happening and you’re sending out a dear community letter, a fundraising plea or an alumni open house – something important and visible enough to be addressing in that way – and you’re not prepared to answer questions in those settings, it can make the school feel really disjointed.”
- Reach out and listen. “Having a regular way to expect and hear from leaders is really important. For instance, with a COVID dashboard knowing that it’s going to be updated on these days, at these times. Also having true opportunities to interact and be heard as a stakeholder is important. One of the most frustrating things I’ve seen a lot of schools doing is calling webinars town halls. It’s a chancellor or president speaking. They will take questions ahead of time in writing and select the ones they want to answer. That’s not a town hall. That’s really not giving people the opportunity to interact and be heard and ask questions.
- Be out front: I think leaders need to be visible right now. They have to make decisions confidently and stick to them, unless there’s a real mitigating reason to change.
- Don’t be silent when a crisis occurs. “It’s important to say something. Even if that something is to say, ‘because it’s such a rapidly changing situation, we decided we won’t be making a decision until x date.’ When you can’t comment exactly on your decision, at least comment on the process, so people know when to expect to hear. It also prevents other people from speculating and saying, ‘why aren’t they doing anything?’ Letting people know there’s a process is the second best thing to letting them know what the information is. The schools that have made a misstep were the ones that didn’t say what they were actually doing, or said what they were doing, but then didn’t demonstrate any follow through. Follow through is really important.”
- Ask questions and form a plan: “What does this do to our enrollment? What does this do to our fundraising? What does this do to our finances, most importantly? We are deep enough into this [pandemic] and have enough facts to know you’ve got to have a plan. You know what’s going to happen. You know you’re going to have outbreaks. You know you’re going to have issues around the election. You know you’re going to have issues around the racial reckoning that’s going on in our country that has people upset. There’s no reason not to be planning for those now. At least have a starting point for how you can communicate about it.”
- Be flexible and be quicker. “I’ve worked with higher ed for a long time. It’s not an industry that’s known for moving quickly from a structural standpoint. It’s not necessarily a criticism, it’s just a fact. And there’s just not time to sit on things and review and let perfect be the enemy of good. Right now, things are happening that needs to be addressed. I recognize trying to balance the desires and needs of funders and trustees and faculty who expect to have the freedom to speak. Knowing all that, they still need to be able to make decisions and move quickly and stick to them.”
- No excuses. “It doesn’t really cost any more to have good communication. Every school has staff. Trustees, cabinet, I know their hands are tied in some ways, and they can only do so much. But it doesn’t matter. A school should be communicating clearly, frequently and honestly.
- Double-check details in online messaging: “Make sure that that links work, that there’s a place to go if you have a question. It may feel like minutiae from a communication standpoint, but ensure everything is tight and buttoned up, so if people have places to go or find information, it’s easy to do so.”
Lish says those who can perform well in the areas above ultimately will succeed in meeting the needs of stakeholders, while others who don’t might be doomed to fail now and in 2021.
“How you handle something during a crisis, that’s where that’s where the rubber meets the road, she says. “During good times, it’s very easy to sit at the top and be a leader. Everyone is looking at who’s at the top and how they’re leading through a crisis.”
Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org