Campus Crisis Communications 101

How should campus leaders speak to their communities in a crisis? How should they strike the balance among key concerns like facing sobering realities, trying to boost morale, and simply conveying significant information?

This has been an ongoing issue in Wisconsin lately. The news out of Madison has been depressing, complex, and highly fluid, so faculty, staff, and students have sought out information wherever they can get it. In response to that, UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Mark Mone has led a series of town-hall-style meetings, at which he has briefed the campus community and at least sometimes fielded questions.

Last week’s meeting took place just days after Walker signed into law his biennial budget, which includes the one-two punch of a $250 million cut to the UW System and the revocation of tenure protections from state statute. So although it’s midsummer, a large audience came to hear how Mone would respond. Unfortunately, the meeting quickly became an eerily off-kilter cheerleading exercise, leaving hundreds of people who had just experienced perhaps the worst week in their professional lives feeling even more demoralized, which really takes some doing.

Chancellor Mone opened the meeting by describing “what could have been,” had the budget passed as initially describe: with a $300 million cut to the system, translating into a $24 million annual cut to UWM. Instead, said Mone, we face a $12.2 million cut in FY 2015-16, and an $18 million cut in FY 2016-17. The take-home message: UWM is far better off than it might have been. The worst-case scenario, at least in budgetary terms, did not come to pass.

I understand that the Chancellor is walking a thin line. He’s leading a campus under considerable strain, and it does no good if he buckles under it himself. He’s also simultaneously addressing other audiences: legislators, regents, alumni, parents, donors. Finding some silver lining is not only legitimate, but necessary. And factually speaking, he is correct—things could be even worse—and there’s nothing wrong with saying so.

To hear Mark Mone tell it, though, you’d think that UWM had just received a windfall. “Why was our cut that positive?” he asked at one point. His answer: “We have been advocating for UWM … in every possible way … and it’s our steady drumbeat, it’s that constant messaging in every possible way about the importance and the significance of our role … This has been heard…. There are a number of things that bode very well for us.”

Well, maybe. But if you set them alongside the number of things that bode very ill, I know which column will be longer. Failing to acknowledge that, beyond the occasional sprinkling of the word “challenge” into the presentation, shows a degree of tone-deafness that is truly dispiriting.

Perhaps the Mone Administration needs a crisis-management handbook to avoid that happening again. Since standing at the foot of the mountain can be overwhelming, I’m happy to get them started with a few overlapping points:

  1. Don’t whistle at a funeral. For a chancellor who often talks about campus climate, Mark Mone seemed completely oblivious to the climate in just one room. Even if he truly believes that the tenure protections taken out of statute can be replicated in Board of Regents policy, the fact is that right now they are gone, and faculty are shaken. Instead of having those feelings addressed, we were treated to the PowerPoint equivalent of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
  1. Too much sugar is bad for you. We get it: like it or not, the contemporary college chancellor is part CEO, part fundraiser, part cheerleader. But a crisis is a crisis; Winston Churchill didn’t get on the radio during the Blitz and tell his people, “My, look at the air traffic tonight! That Luftwaffe presents quite the challenge, doesn’t it?”
  1. If the emperor is naked, don’t compliment him on his wardrobe. In other words, assume the intelligence of your audience. Not a bad idea in general, but you’re at the helm of a university, for God’s sake. Not only are most of the people listening to you too smart to fall for sugar-coated words; when they hear them, they are going to lose confidence in you.
  1. Trust your donors. Assume that your donors are pretty smart too. And unless they’ve been living in a cave for the past six months–a cave without an internet connection, for that matter–they have at least some idea that we’re not doing business as usual now. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean you can’t fundraise from a position of strength. Just as our donors know we’re facing a crisis of historic proportions, they also know that we continue to do excellent, valuable work. Trust them to be able to hold both of those ideas in their minds at once.
  1. The numbers in your data represent people’s lives. My colleague Jasmine Alinder urged you not to lose sight of this, and it’s worth repeating. Emotions are raw right now, so deal with people accordingly. And do them the basic courtesy of giving them the information they need in a timely fashion. The “Transformational Team” you you’re assembling to come up with “big ideas” is going to transform some people right out of their jobs, and make other seismic changes. People need honesty, not just pep talks, so they can make plans for the sake of their careers, their bank accounts, and their loved ones.

Even under normal circumstances, faculty, staff, and students are fairly allergic to management-speak. Regardless of the languages and vocabularies they use in their work, what they need from their campus leaders are explanations in plain, unvarnished English.

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About Joel Berkowitz

Center director, teacher, theatre historian, translator, co-founder of yiddishstage.org. Proud supporter of the Wisconsin Idea.
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