Ten common mistakes
In my previous column, I offered a top 10 list of common mistakes in educational fundraising. Here is my list for communications, based on a career of committing—and, I hope, learning from—many of these very mistakes.
Spinning only makes us dizzy. If the action is wrong, the words won't make it right. We don't make a problem go away by burying it under blather; we make it go away by solving it.
Hiding only piques curiosity. The more we withhold information, the more convinced people will become that it must be bad. Granted, there are matters (e.g., anonymous gifts) that warrant confidentiality; however, absent a clear rationale for secrecy, we should opt for transparency and take responsibility for our decisions by explaining them publicly.
To assume only makes an ... (well, you know the rest). We may think we know what our constituents believe about us, why they care, where they get their information, and what they want to know. However, unless we've done the research, there's a strong likelihood that we're wrong. As insiders, we can be poor judges of the views and interests of our external publics. Therefore, we need to ask them what they think, informally and formally, in one-on-one conversations, in focus groups, and through surveys.
If we wait for issues to ignite, we are likely to get burned. An effective communications program requires a proactive approach to issues management and risk assessment. Unfortunately, we rarely get credit for the fires we prevent; we appear far more heroic when we rescue an institution's reputation from a flaming controversy.
No area of advancement has changed more rapidly or radically than communications. The old model of "senders and receivers" is long dead; we now operate in an information environment filled with "hunters and gatherers." In this era of social media and self-publishers, we can no longer control the communications process or rely on printed materials to overcome the information overload. Instead, we need to embrace our role in the interactive exchange of ideas. Isn't that precisely what educational institutions are all about?
In this new communications environment, traditional news outlets have become far less important (sadly), and yet we continue to place great emphasis on using them to tell our stories. Of course, those outlets were never a very reliable means of delivering our messages. As a New York Times reporter explained to a CASE audience, a news story requires tension. If we are unwilling to expose the tension inherent in our story, we shouldn't count on the news media to cover it. Put another way, I'll promise you the front page if you'll promise me the scandal.
We would do well to recall Pascal's confession that "if I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter." In our efforts to be exhaustive in describing our institutions, we may exhaust the patience of our audiences. We mustn't mistake quantity for quality of information just as we mustn't mistake telling the facts for telling the story. As good academics, we pay careful attention to the cognitive aspects of our message; as good communicators, we must also attend to the affective elements.
Students, faculty, and staff are constantly communicating messages about our institutions, often with greater perceived credibility than paid communicators or top administrators. Can they be programmed to deliver the party line? Of course not. Can we help them understand their role and interest in ensuring that external publics have an accurate picture of the institution or correct information about an issue? We not only can, we have an obligation to do so.
Our egalitarian instincts notwithstanding, some constituents are more important than others given their relative influence on the ability of an institution to fulfill its mission. Unless we are blessed with unlimited staff time, we have a responsibility to prioritize our publics and allocate resources accordingly. We should also recognize that some decisions may not please some constituents and that some situations will call on us to display the courage of our convictions despite vocal opposition.
A chancellor with whom I once worked would wryly quip that "once you give up your integrity, the rest is easy." The rest is also sleazy. Giving up your integrity—personal, professional, and institutional—means sacrificing values, principles, and reputation, the most valuable assets in any advancement program. Whatever the momentary gain from taking the easy but unethical route, the long-term price (like the road ahead) will be steep.
John Lippincott served as president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education from 2004 through 2015.
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