Public relations officers and college presidents have spent so much time over the past two years focusing on empathetic and sympathetic communication that our initial response to each national crisis seems to be, “We need a statement.”
While holding is an important leadership principle, it does not always have to take the form of a community email. Sometimes our people need space, sometimes they need each other and sometimes they need to hear from the President or Dean. When deciding to issue a statement, consider the following test, which was compiled over several years throughout my career. Although the language is my own, this topic has been mentioned by other professionals in several formats. I do not claim copyright but instead share my experience and how I have adapted and expanded art conversations over the years.
Questions to ask:
- Are critical events relevant to higher education?
- What is the circle of influence: is it a local, regional, national or international issue?
- Why do we want to communicate about the event?
- What are our colleagues doing?
- Do the words reflect the tone and personality of the leader and the college?
- Will a statement from the college add to the conversation?
- Are colleges in a position to influence change?
- Does the incident directly affect our community, students, employees? Note: If it affects alumni and not anyone else, it should generally be considered indirect.
- Is the college taking any steps to help the affected community?
- Will the statement be considered discriminatory against other groups?
- If a statement is issued, what will be the institutional response?
Our college, for example, applied this thinking when deciding to make a statement about the recent homicide in Buffalo, NY, but not about this week’s hooliganism at Uvalade, Texas Elementary School. Buffalo was just a few hours away, and the shooting was racially inspired. Our college does not take a political stand on gun control, but we stand against racism in any form, which in this example was premeditated murder.
It is important to acknowledge that any, many, or all of our staff and students may be deeply affected by a horrific event. However, without testing against pre-agreed criteria, an institutional statement can be considered functional and unbacked. Over time such statements will raise an irresistible expectation and, worse, destroy credibility. When no statement is made, colleges should consider other forms of genuine support for community members. Times of national grief may be a good time for departmental leaders to express sympathy for a small group, to host a group counseling session, to give individuals a place to mourn, or just to listen.
Melissa Pharma Richards Clinton serves as vice president for communications and marketing at Hamilton College, NY