Four Considerations for Engaging Your Campus Community

When it comes to communicating about your institution, you have thousands of mouths to feed. And most of the time, everyone is hungry. Right now, though, it may seem that there’s absolutely not enough of you to get to everyone who needs your attention. Students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, prospects, donors, neighbors, community leaders, peers and colleagues, media and dozens of other segments are starved for answers to questions they believe you can answer.

The first half of this year brought challenges very few anticipated: a crippling pandemic; approaching 450,000 related deaths worldwide (nearly 120,000 in the U.S.) at this writing; health care shortages in caregivers, beds, equipment and medication; an economic roller coaster marked by the largest downfalls we’ve ever seen; a televised murder of George Floyd triggering an international protest and cry for racial justice and reconciliation; looting and fires demonstrating ultimate frustration and anger; subsequent tearing down of monuments honoring icons of systemic injustice; a forced pivot to learning at a distance, predictions of disastrous fall enrollment and public outcry about higher ed’s role in advancing inequity and inaccessibility to the privilege of education. Add all that to an election year among a deeply divided nation and it’s easy to see how every leader in higher education (not just you) is facing one of the most challenging moments in history, and particularly in the history of your institution.

Let us suggest that during this moment of international crises, your primary audience—the people who you most need to feed—is your most important. We’ve written about your primary audience often. Peter Drucker, the voice of management counsel, suggests that your primary audience are the people for whom your mission is written. For colleges and universities, we take that to mean students, faculty and staff. In the second edition of Coherence: How Telling the Truth Will Advance Your Cause (and Save the World) you can read a description of your primary audience in Chapter 9. And if you’d like the “CliffsNotes” about audience definition, you can download a worksheet here.

Your primary audience is most important right now because a) they, more than anyone else, need to be assured of a certain future; b) in order for them to function well as community members, they need to be “in the loop;” c) they are your most significant brand ambassadors and d) they hold the power to do the most with misinformation.

With that rationale in mind, let us offer four considerations for communicating and connecting with your internal audience(s).

First, we advise that you listen.

Because higher ed provides critical information as part of its role as a center of learning and research, the public tends to turn to you for answers in critical times. Naturally, that generates a habit of speaking, often proactively, before there’s sufficient time for reflection. Now, particularly with faculty, staff and students it’s vitally important that you listen.

You’ll hear a mix of voices: some expressing fear, some anger, some frustration, some with great ideas, some with lousy ideas. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famed psychologist and grief expert, determined that our two primary emotions were fear and love; all other emotions had their roots in these two. Those two emotions are wildly evident in the expressions from your campus colleagues. They’re expressing fear about their health (and ultimately, their capacity for long life), their jobs and livelihood, their families, their ability to adapt, their angst about change in general, their discomfort with technology, and for some, their personal safety. At the same time, we’ve observed your colleagues demonstrating love immeasurably by caring for the sick, providing resources to the underserved, standing for justice, raising voices for the unheard, lifting spirits by providing food, shelter and money to offset economic disaster and using their talents to problem-solve.

You need to hear about all of that. And they need to tell you. You need to listen before you can tell their stories to others.

We’ve been advising our clients to regularly speak directly with current and prospective students. Many of them are engaging faculty and staff to call students with updated information and to simply check in on them, expressing their interest in addressing any concerns. We encourage that investment in wonderful exchanges. The same kinds of calls need to come from university leadership to faculty, staff and students. Pick up the phone to ask a professor how they’re feeling. Ask what’s of greatest concern to them. Take five or ten minutes to engage with an administrative assistant or maintenance crew member to hear what’s of utmost interest to them about your plans. Host Zoom town halls. Invite questions to your inbox. Be proactive by reaching out to your internal audience even more than to your most beloved donor.

Include social listening to your regular agenda. Liz Gross of Campus Sonar offers some good advice in her recent newsletter: “Listening now gives you a chance to reflect, seek to understand, and prepare a new path forward to share with your community before they return or as they arrive on campus … . Telling your social media manager to “keep an eye on it” is not supportive of racial justice. It’s like asking your spokesperson to just watch the protesters march around the building.”

Next, be diligent about including others.

By “including” we mean not just integrating their ideas, but also including their language and strategies.

It’s tempting for higher ed leaders to quickly make statements. That’s what higher ed does, right? We’ve recently watched as campuses roll out statements about health, safety, employee layoffs and furloughs, campus readiness, diversity, racial injustice and freedom of speech. We’ve also read and heard that few of these are written by doctors, health professionals, people of color or students. In a recent Tweet, Kevin McClure at UNC Wilmington asked if student affairs professionals were engaged in planning committees for fall. The very limited response was an alarming “no.” The more alarming response was the expression of fear to speak up.

As higher ed leaders, we’re fairly quick to speak, but it’s far more important that we listen. We’re quick to make statements, but it’s far more important to actually change behaviors.

More from Kevin McClure in a recent Tweet on his observations about the statements outlining rationale for returning to campus: “First, they show little concern for slowing or stopping the spread of covid. In fact, they seem to be assuming it will spread and hoping they can contain it. Second, because they prioritize institutional needs and student demands, and because they show little concern for fighting covid broadly, they demonstrate an utter disregard for serving the public good. Responsibility to the public good has appeared nowhere. Third, the rationales I’ve seen don’t seriously contend with the differential effects of covid. How racism means that people of color are more exposed and less protected. When a leader says it’s worth the risk, who is bearing the burden of that risk-taking? The final reason the rationales I’ve seen are lacking is that they seem to have a strained relationship with truth and science. …The disregard for people working on and near campuses means colleges aren’t very different from an Amazon warehouse or meat packing plant. The expectation is that workers must show up in the interests of the organization and consumer.

That’s pointed.

Third, be open.

Welcome (and really hear) ideas other than your own. This is the time for fresh thinking, for new ideas from different voices (physicians, young people, African Americans, women). While we fret about the ramifications of our current circumstances, the times also open wide the windows of opportunity. Now is the best time to rethink old programs, processes and policies. Be diligent about questioning everything. You can reinvent because the significant disruption has allowed you that privilege. In fact, your internal audience wants you to disrupt, too. They’re counting on it and you. Of course, begin the change by reviewing point #1 above.

Also be open about ideas that you are considering. Especially with your primary audience, talk about the ideas that are emerging. Speak to the indecision. Address the variables and the breadth of considerations. Let your colleagues in on the process. And, as mentioned above, include them in the decisions. Demonstrate transparency by being open about the beauty and peace of not knowing.

Offer hope.

Not to go all Obama on you, but, look, everyone knows that you don’t know. No one expects you to have all the answers, let alone one dependable idea. You are guessing like the rest of us. But it falls to you as a campus leader to move your institution forward including all its people. Demonstrate that you are worthy of their trust.

We’ve suffered through months of downcasts, depressing demographics and suspicious surveys telling us that the sky is falling. We’re not suggesting you ignore facts, but the trends we’re seeing are not universally true. Chicken Little rounded up all his friends to warn the king; Henny Penny, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, Foxy Woxy, Ducky Lucky and Gander Lander were all convinced of the report of a falling sky. They each joined in the panic and mayhem without first-hand knowledge of the facts. Perhaps the uproar we’ve been part of has been prompted by the evidence of an acorn drop. It’s not inconsequential to consider a 20 percent drop; but a reported 20 percent of possible changed plans wasn’t much different in March and April of 2020 than it was in April 2019, 2018 or 2017. That said, it’s likely that the sky may, in fact, fall on some among Henny, Goosey, Turkey, Foxy, Ducky or Gander. Nonetheless, report on reality over possibility.

Specifically, share your successes and your strategies with your internal audience. Make them aware of all you are doing to succeed. Remind them of the continued good work of essential workers who are diligently serving to keep your campus alive for all those who may be working from home. Let them talk to administrators who are active in the planning and tactics. Give them data. Tell them what and why you anticipate your future to be solid. Provide a handle of hope. In doing so, you’ll also give them confidence to keep doing their best; you’ll provide motivation to move forward beyond despair to delight.

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Rick Bailey

Rick is the Principal and founding partner at RHB.