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Balancing A Community’s Desire for Communications with Holes in Available Information

This past weekend I was fortunate enough to serve as faculty to the ACE Fellows Program participants. This my 7th or 8th year teaching media and executive communications considerations to this group, though this year’s experience was much different.
The leadership team from the National Center for Institutional Diversity, housed at the University of Michigan, created a fictional case study for the Fellows to help them understand that they may be asked to make leadership decisions with limited information.
After the rollout of the scenario, I presented executive communications considerations and then worked with them in small groups to develop a briefing memorandum and a communications strategy for their fictional university president.
Interestingly, the five groups approached the task quite differently, in part because the expertise among the participants was quite different. Some are provosts, a number come from student affairs, there are a handful of academics, at least two serve as Title IX coordinators and the rest represent a variety of offices across a campus. Their mix of expertise was a helpful reminder that a campus response can be made stronger through collaboration unless the variety of perspectives leads the team to paralysis when they need to make decisions, create a plan and execute.
The scenario developed by the Center purposely left critical elements of the situation undefined—there was not enough detail for a decision that “solved” the situation. But as we all know, making a decision and communicating the status of an emerging situation are two very different things.
A number of the participants had a hard time with this leadership reality. Their desire for a buttoned up and packaged story that led to one right answer prevented them from understanding the underlying lesson—university leaders don’t always have the luxury of a perfect storm. Most often, the decisions being made are based on the information at hand, application of relevant policies and procedures and the insights and gut instincts of the leadership team.
Unfortunately, leaders are rarely presented with a crisis situation where all details are known, perspectives align and solutions are clear. But, throughout their decision-making timeline they have an obligation to communicate with their internal and possibly external audiences. If anyone can credibly ask, “what does this mean for me?” or “how will I be impacted?” then the institution should consider a communication to its audiences. It is important to remove fears and present known facts.
These updates should always lead with care and compassion for the campus community, include statements of facts, clarify misinformation, outline strategy and do so with a leadership tone. It’s okay to admit you don’t know everything, but it’s not okay to use the lack of information as a rationale for not reaching out to the community or not making important decisions.
As we’ve seen with so many situations in higher education, waiting to make a decision until there is absolute clarity means you may be waiting until the ability to impact the outcome has passed. Decisions can be made incrementally based on the information available and there are often ways to mitigate impact. As some of my Fellows teams saw, if you dig deep enough into the situation and bring a variety of perspectives to the table, then you can start to build creative solutions. And these solutions can supply answers to outstanding questions, which builds towards deeper resolution.
What is most importantly for campus leaders, though, is to remember that you are expected to take that first step.