I spent the past weekend pondering the recent changes made in the White House communications team and the reaction to these changes from the media and the general public. Last week President Trump named Anthony Scaramucci, nicknamed “The Mooch,” the new White House communications director and soon after Sean Spicer resigned as White House press secretary. There was initial excitement about having someone new in the White House, which was quickly followed by frustration and then mocking that not much had changed despite turnover in personnel. And here we are, less than a week later, and everything is back to business as usual with “fake news” returning to its status as go-to line by the White House, which unfortunately isn’t a good turn of events.
Of course, there are times when a personnel change is necessary. For those who transition into a new position, there are a few tidbits that can be gleaned from the past week and from higher education transitions:
- Is the problem the message, the messenger or the delivery? We’ve observed higher education comms teams that have solid leadership and staffing but are being evaluated on how well unpopular decisions were received by key constituents. I was a big fan of fairy tales as a child, but I’ve outgrown believing that Rumpelstiltskin can make gold out of straw and strongly believe we should stop expecting our peers to do the same with negative news stories. There is a chance that the messenger or the delivery might be the issue. As an example, I often tease Erin that there are three groups of people in the world: those who love me, those who love her and those who love us both. Sometimes a person is a fit for an institution and/or a situation and sometimes they aren’t. And that’s okay. In the end, the key is to match the right messenger with the right vehicle and messaging. Forcing any of these three elements increases the likelihood of disaster.
- Refrain from getting a nickname, even if it is playful or loving. So, here’s the thing—none of what we talk about or communicate should be about us. I’m most comfortable when I am quickly forgotten once a crisis has resolved. We should prioritize making our work memorable over ourselves or our reputations. If you get a nickname, it often suggests that you have become part of the story and are taking attention away from the task at hand. Take a step back and return the focus to the institution or situation.
- Remember that the first impression you make includes your initial promises—live up to them. It’s painful for me to think that terms like “honesty” and “transparency” have become cliché in our business because of their overuse and abuse. If you promise either of these things (and you should), be sure to live them.
- Communications are best when we consider those who we believe are impacted and those who feel they are impacted. When differentiating audiences, messages and impact I always circle back to presidents and remind them of a key point—we aren’t just communicating to those who are directly impacted by decisions, we are communicating to everyone who feels as if their experience, memory or association with the institution is at risk. Decisions about staff positions impact faculty and students, animosity with the faculty spills over to the alumni and administration. Answer “how am I impacted?” before people can make assumptions about your intention or its impact on them.
- Remember you are the expert. Many people believe they are communications experts because they are consumers of messaging and communicate with others daily. That experience is much different than the important expertise we hold. Don’t relinquish your positional power—do your homework, collect data, review case studies and then meet the expectations your president has for you and your office. Don’t be afraid to push back on communications feedback that you disagree with and do so with core tenets of our profession in mind and alternative solutions at hand.
I wish The Mooch good luck in his new post and hope that the coming six months of the administration have less focus on the communications team and more on the policy news they are tasked with sharing.