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Communicating in bad times

With the economy in free fall, university leaders need skill and a tough skin to meet faculty, staff and students face-to-face to explain what’s going on. But it’s what every leader should be doing


When the University of Guelph launched the Rumour Mill two years ago, a series of informal question-and-answer sessions with President Alastair Summerlee and Provost Maureen Mancuso, the bottom hadn’t yet fallen out of world financial markets. University endowment and pension funds were still healthy, and there was no sign of pending budget cuts. The sessions were meant to give members of the university community a chance to ask Drs. Summerlee and Mancuso about rumours circulating on campus and to discuss whatever else was on their minds. It was, Dr. Summerlee says, part of his longstanding plan to make senior administration more accountable.

Then the economy took a nose-dive, and universities were suddenly faced with the prospect of budget cuts, tuition increases, hiring freezes and possible layoffs. By the end of last year, Dr. Summerlee was facing some sharp criticisms about the university’s investment decisions and pointed questions about his own proposed salary increase.

“It’s almost like my own reality TV show,” quips Dr. Summerlee with a laugh. It isn’t easy, he admits, facing such public accusations and criticism. But, the Rumour Mill will continue as planned.

“In my view this is an important piece of the role of a leader of a public institution,” Dr. Summerlee says. “You need to be accountable to the people who are here, and sometimes those people have a very different perception of you, of what’s going on, and your role and relevance to the place. And it’s pretty difficult sometimes, but you owe it to them to listen and to take it.” And besides, he adds, it helps boost listenership of the Rumour Mill podcasts: “It’s quite good real-life drama.”

The Rumour Mill is just one medium U of Guelph’s leaders are using to communicate with faculty, staff and students in these uncertain economic times. Faced with what seems to be a never-ending litany of bad news, university chiefs across Canada are trying to find ways to reach out to the university community.

U of Guelph, for example, has posted on its website letters, memos and a webcast of a statement by President Summerlee, laying out the full scope of Guelph’s financial difficulties – its endowment losses, pension fund deficit and budget shortfall – and the proposed measures for dealing with them. The site includes a suggestion box inviting visitors to e-mail ideas they have to help the university pare its costs.

Several other university leaders have held town hall meetings and other public forums recently, and have set up task forces to consult with the university community. And though the news they are delivering is usually sobering, “I think overall people appreciate being kept in the loop,” Dr. Summerlee says.

That’s the goal of any successful communications strategy, says Peter Eckel, director of programs and initiatives at the American Council on Education’s Center for Effective Leadership, based in Washington, D.C.

A good communications plan should start with an explanation of the difficulties the institution faces, Dr. Eckel says. All too often university presidents present solutions without explaining why they are necessary. The natural response is to criticize those solutions. “Leaders who spend the time to present the full context of the problem and the potential solutions tend to get much more buy-in from the campus,” he explains.

When delivering the message, it’s best to emphasize “where the institution is headed… and what it wants to become” rather than just the need for cutbacks, he adds. And leaders should avoid using highly inflammatory and negative language, which can have long-lasting and devastating consequences.

The best method of getting a message across will depend on a number of factors, such as the size and culture of the campus. What works well for one won’t necessarily work for another. Town hall meetings may be better suited to smaller institutions, for example.

Both large and small institutions, however, present their own particular communications challenges. Smaller universities tend to have a tight-knit group of scholars, students and alumni, and that can make rumours difficult to control. A good communication plan should focus on keeping those rumours in check.

At larger institutions, the goal should be to deliver a single, clear and consistent message. This can be difficult when the university community is spread out over several campuses, often miles apart, Dr. Eckel says.

Jane Shapiro, senior vice-president at the Toronto office of international communications firm Hill & Knowlton, says a good communications strategy at any institution, regardless of size, should answer three questions: What’s going on? What’s changing? What does this mean for us?

The message should be delivered repeatedly and consistently, even if all of the pertinent information – such as future operating revenues from government – isn’t available. Don’t delay, she advises. Communicate what you do know. (See Ms. Shapiro’s 10-step communications strategy for university presidents, in the box at right.)

People tend to respond to difficult circumstances in one of two ways, says Ms. Shapiro. Either they become anxious and panic or they assume that the situation has nothing to do with them and carry on with business as usual. A good communications plan will give those who are overwhelmed more certainty and it will better inform those who think life will continue unchanged, she says. “It’s about being in control over the situation.”

If you can accomplish that, then you may be able to defuse the anger and resentment that can arise when budget cuts ultimately have to be made. “If [the cuts] seem to be arbitrary and unexpected, that’s when you’ll have animosity,” she says. “If you communicate properly … you should be able to get people to be part of the process [and] understand that what’s happening is necessary and unavoidable.”

When it became clear to leaders at McGill University that the economy was unlikely to rebound quickly, they launched the Administrative Task Force on Economic Uncertainty headed by provost Anthony Masi. “We began realizing that the community needed to have more communication about this,” says Dr. Masi.

The aim of the task force is to help people understand how market forces are affecting McGill and to get them involved in proposing solutions. The task force held four town hall meetings in February and March. Attendance was low, Dr. Masi admits, perhaps because of concern that participation could be construed as support for potential budget cuts down the road. But he says he was encouraged by the more than 200 suggestions the task force received by e-mail on ways to trim the budget, many of them to do with reducing energy use and centralizing procurement practices.

The task force has its own website which visitors can use to send suggestions and keep up-to-date on task force activities. The suggestions it collects and other recommendations it makes will go to the senate and the board of governors for consideration as part of the university’s 2010 budget plan. Then the task force will reconvene in the fall to consider ways to redesign the university’s budget process.

At the same time, McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum issued an open letter describing the university’s financial challenges and its proposed course of action. And she and other senior administrators – including Dr. Masi, other vice-principals and deans – agreed to take a three-percent salary cut. The move will save some money but even more importantly, Dr. Masi says, it sends the message that “we are ready to make sacrifices for the good of the institution.”

Ryerson University President Sheldon Levy says he realized soon after the economic turmoil began that it would present enormous communications challenges. He convened a town hall meeting in late November to outline the issues. “We thought it was really important to provide the context,” he says, “so it didn’t appear as though Ryerson in particular had a problem but that the problem was one that all of us were facing.”

Dr. Levy followed up with meetings with various employee groups on campus. The university created a page on its website dedicated to economic news. It includes a webcast of the town hall meeting and links to economic statements made by Ryerson officials, responses of other universities to the economic downturn and announcements from federal and provincial governments. Visitors are invited to e-mail questions to the president; these are then posted on the website along with his answers.

A second town hall meeting was planned to take place after the March 26 Ontario budget. “It will be continuous communication,” Dr. Levy says.

Still, he says, even a good communications strategy won’t make the necessary changes easier to implement. But, he adds, “Experience has taught me that in situations like the one we’re in, the most important element you have going for you is credibility.” Not everyone will agree with your decisions, he says, “but there will be a general sense in the community that you are trying to be open and fair. That’s what you are trying to achieve.”

Ten-step strategy for communicating your financial

Jane Shapiro, senior vice-president at communications firm Hill & Knowlton, recommends that university presidents follow these 10 steps when communicating information about the financial challenges universities face:

  1. Communicate directly to students, faculty and staff through a public forum or a town hall meeting.
  2. Use other ongoing means to reinforce your message, such as meetings with student groups and faculty associations.
  3. Spread the message through the deans and other senior administrators.
  4. Use the university’s website to post videos, podcasts and texts of town hall meetings, speeches and statements.
  5. Consider starting a blog. The tone should be familiar and informal. Keep it up to date and be prepared to post comments.
  6. Put the process into action.
  7. Manage expectations. Be clear about what’s possible. Set clear terms of reference and parameters on possible outcomes. This is especially important at universities because they tend to be collaborative settings that encourage discussion and debate.
  8. Provide regular updates.
  9. Communicate with other university stakeholders such as alumni and donors.
  10. Communicate with governments. Keep them informed about what you are doing and what your needs are.
Rosanna Tamburri
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