Last night, while one of his fellow swimmers peacocked around during warm ups before their 200 m butterfly semifinal, Michael Phelps made the face that launched a thousand memes on social media.
.@MichaelPhelps is not impressed with Chad le Clos's antics.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 9, 2016
Looking at his face, I heard my mother’s voice in my head: “Careful, or it’ll freeze that way.”
I also couldn’t help thinking about relations between higher education leaders and the media.
We’ve all had less than ideal experiences with the press. It’s even more challenging when you’re dealing with a president or other senior leader who have had what they perceive to be a bad experience. Maybe they feel they were misquoted, maybe they feel your institution didn’t get a fair shake, maybe a reporter bypassed a good news story about your campus to focus instead on something negative or more sensational.
[Kristine wrote a great blog post last year about when and how to ask for corrections, and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Asking for a correction is never easy and if you handle it poorly, the reporter will never forget.]
There are a number of strategies for addressing inaccuracies, misrepresentations, or missed points, but the bigger challenge is achieving a reset in the relationship between your leadership or institution and a reporter. Below are some tactics to consider.
Talk it out. Let your principal vent. Listen carefully to identify key concerns and those that you can address. For example, if they believe they were misquoted, check into it. Did anyone take notes on the conversation? Was it recorded? Does the quote in question sound like your boss? If there’s something worth bringing up to the reporter or his or her editor, offer to help your boss reach out to the outlet so they feel like their concerns are being taken seriously and getting addressed. Or, if they want to address it themselves, provide them with an insider’s perspective on how to do so while keeping relationships with the reporter and outlet intact.
Get feedback from the reporter. This is when that build-the-relationship-before-you-need-it advice comes in handy—you’ll know if you can have a frank conversation with the reporter in question about your president’s concerns and perceptions. Such a conversation might also provide insight about the reporter or the publication that might help your president feel better about future engagements.
Clear the air. If it’s a major issue for your leadership, you may consider a conversation between your leadership and the reporter or editor. I recommend this only if your president is capable of putting aside his or her emotions and engaging in a substantive, professional conversation that doesn’t involve finger-pointing or lecturing.
Get back on the horse. Particularly if you’re in a locale where there’s one major media outlet with one higher education reporter, you simply cannot let the relationship become about that one time, that one story, that one error. And so it’s best to get your president back on the horse sooner rather than later. Schedule an interview, desk side visit or editorial board. Give your leader time to express his or her unhappiness about engaging with this reporter again before the appointment. Make sure that he or she is staffed so that questions about quotes or details can be addressed by a third party should they arise. Offer one-pagers, data, or other resources (including national organizations) to ensure the reporter has ample context.
Let it go. Easier said than done, but eventually, everyone has to move on. Punishing a reporter or outlet might feel good in the moment, but in the end, it only punishes the institution. At best, it’s just opportunities lost, but at worst, a soured relationship can be the beginning of something much more detrimental for your college or university.
And if you’re not careful, your relationship will freeze that way.