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Why Are We Here?
Five Rules For Higher Education Communications
Keynote Address at the Public Relations Society of America's Higher Education Senior Summit
April 22, 2004
The first question of communications in higher education should always be, "Why are we here?"
There are, of course, many different ways to answer this question and many different ways to ask the question.
A recent example that you may have seen appeared in a column by Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated. Reilly does the "back of the book" essay every week, and he and his 14-year-old son had just finished a bag of burgers and fries and were on their backs sleepily gazing at an azure blue sky when his son suddenly asked:
"Dad, why are we here?"
Rick had been waiting for this moment.
"I've thought a lot about it, son," he said sincerely,
"And I don't think it's all that complicated.
"I think maybe we're here to teach a kid how to bunt, turn two, and eat sunflower seeds without using his hands.
"We're here to pound the steering wheel and scream while we listen to the game on the radio, 20 minutes after we pulled into the garage. We're here to look all over, give up and then find the ball in the hole.
"We're here to watch, at least once, as the pocket collapses around John Elway, and it's fourth-and-never. Or as the count goes to 3 and 1 on Mark McGwire with bases loaded, and the pitcher begins wishing he'd gone on to med school...
"I don't think the meaning of life is gnashing our teeth over what comes after death but tasting all the tiny moments that come before it...."
Reilly goes on like this for quite a while. Finally he looks over at his son and says:
"Does that answer your question, son?"
And his son says,
"Not really, Dad. What I meant was, why are we here when Mom said to pick her up forty minutes ago?"
I don't mean to imply that the answer to "why we are here" is always simple. It is still the key question.
The answer is never, or should never be, "to make our university look good," or "our president look good," or "to obscure our shortcomings," or even "to convince the state legislature to give us more money."
The answer is to help ourselves and others understand the institution. Understanding colleges and universities is not easy, even for those of us who work there every day. What we do as communications folks is hard, important and has substantial consequences.
Three years ago I became a college president, after some 26 years as a member of the senior staff for 4 presidents at 3 universities. My academic credentials and my experience in fund raising and strategic planning were touted as my greatest assets in becoming a president, but the fact is my PR and higher education communications experience has been from day one the single most important skill set in heading a campus. It is not simply because I am asked to tell the story of the college on an average of twice a day. It is because at the president's level all stories must begin by considering, "Why are we here?"
Taking the time, every single day on every single talk, to consider what and how we need to communicate to each of our various constituencies - faculty, students, staff, alumni, trustees, legislators, parents, the press, the general public, neighbors, affiliated groups and all others - is the work of the communications professional. The president is ultimately responsible for all of it.
These constituents will understand almost any shortcoming - the budget didn't balance, someone died of a drug overdose, we changed the plan, we missed the deadline, we had more cars to park than we expected, we didn't expect this computer breakdown - anything - except the fact that you didn't communicate with them about it, or you didn't tell them the truth.
That is the first rule, of course, of college communications: Tell the truth. Simple... ...Except when you get pressured to tell the good part of the truth and leave out the bad part. That happens when we publish graduation rates for athletes but not for the basketball team that hasn't graduated anyone in years; when we publish our SAT average for our freshman class but leave out the students with lower scores who started in the summer. Then it's not so simple, and it's not the truth either. We are too often embarrassed not by telling falsehoods but by telling only part of the story. Bill Clinton lied about lots of things, but he was a master of shaping and ending the press's interest in a story by giving them more data than they could possibly consume. The Bush Administration's current problem with withholding pre-9/11 information is typical and instinctive. The public will not hold Bush responsible for not knowing that there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction, but they will hold him responsible for withholding reports of what was really said and to whom as that issue was being analyzed by his administration. It is our job not simply to present the institution's story as clearly and responsibly as we can but to help others do it. There is a rich tradition of hubris in the American academy: a belief that what we do is so self-obviously important that we do not need to test our views and communications strategies and explain ourselves at every turn. We do, however, because, public or private, we hold a public trust. Our jobs include not only helping others to tell the institution's story but helping others understand the importance of communicating and explaining what we do at every turn.
My second rule, then, is that there are communications implications - and therefore a need for a communications strategy - for nearly every decision and action we take. The first step after making a decision ought almost always to be to develop a plan for how to communicate it - even if the decision is not to say anything right away.
The third rule is: Tell your story first. Telling the bad stories first is everything.
I have worked at three universities, and two of them tried to beat the press to the story (and one never did). I love my alma mater, but it has had a "reaction" press strategy for at least 25 years that has resulted in a widespread suspicion of the veracity and the competence of the leadership of that university. During my time there, the University spoke about problems only when the press began asking questions, and even then reporters were only given what they were smart enough to request. The result was that the community looked to the newspapers for the story and the truth, not to the University.
In the spring of my first year at Eckerd College, a custodian was murdered on campus by her estranged common-law husband. He drove her truck, with her parking sticker on it, onto campus at 6:a.m., found her coming out of the dorm she cleaned, shot her three times, and left her to die in the courtyard. The police picked him up an hour later watching television in his house.
By 9 a.m., we had sent an e-mail to every student, parent, employee, trustee, and press outlet in the state telling the entire story, complete with quotes from me and the local police investigators. Our Web site carried text and video of the interview I had given to print and TV reporters that morning. The story was over in 48 hours, but the credibility we established still survives. Several parents got horrified calls from their daughters later that morning reporting on the rumors going around campus, only to be told by their parents, "The president has already sent us an e-mail with the whole story; now get out of bed and go to class!"
University and college communications are not just about the press and external constituencies but about internal audiences. If your own people don't know it or don't believe it, neither will anybody else.
The fourth rule for higher education PR is this: All successful communications start within the institution. A primary audience for each PR instrument - college magazines, newsletters, alumni e-mails, press releases, speeches, videos, campaign brochures, planning pieces, and so on - is the internal audience. They know, parent, talk to, elect, pay, are paid by, and are related one way or the other to each of your other constituent groups: Convince the faculty and staff first. Presidents who do not pay great attention to their co-workers from Day One often do not get very many Day Twos.
The great poet W. H. Auden said, "How can I know what I think til I see what I say." He meant ideas and feelings are inchoate until they are put into words. I think that is exactly right.
Many years ago at the University of Tennessee, the Chancellor's staff was discussing how we had declined dramatically in the number of transfer students we were enrolling that fall. I had just completed a complete makeover of the University's recruitment publications. At the end of the staff discussion the Chancellor told me to develop a brochure to recruit transfers and to tell them all the ways UT supported their enrollment.
Well, we didn't know what we really thought until we saw what we said: After trying to write the kinds of things one would need to write to put together a compelling recruitment brochure, and finding none of it to be true, I reported back to the Chancellor, "Our transfer enrollment is down because we have two dozen hurdles in their way: We really don't act like we want them at all!" We then used what I had learned to change our policies and procedures so I could actually write a brochure that was both positive and truthful. As is so often the case, we had to get our internal communications right before we could do any effective external communications.
There is one more rule. By the way, these are rules for me and not necessarily for you. They are rules I have developed mostly by painful experience.
The last rule is: Ask the hard questions everywhere. Whether it is in student affairs or athletics or the President's Office, nothing is out-of-bounds for the chief communications officer. It is his or her job to remember, particularly while others are looking for rocks to hide under, "what we are here for:" It is also this: to be a model to our students and our supporters of how to seek and say the truth. We must believe and we must act as if we believe, as the motto of so many of our colleges says, "The truth shall make you free." PR professionals must ask all the hard questions that the press or the legislature or parents or others will ask or ought to ask - so that those they support can think clearly through the issues and develop answers the institution wants to live with for the long term. Sometimes you get ignored: That's not your business. "Speaking the truth to power," as Thomas More's Utopia puts it, is your business. That is what you are here for.
To be a bit more personal, that is what presidents need. Just as I sleep better at night knowing that my CFO is watching the budget every hour of every day and my development VP is thinking 24/7 about how to connect with our donors and prospects, presidents want communications and PR professionals who are thinking at every turn about the internal and external perception of our actions and situations and about how to both present ourselves and, if necessary, rethink our positions so that we can do the best job for our institutions.
It is a great calling, and I applaud you for taking it on.