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Driving Your Budget Message

The art of clear communication in good times and bad
University Business, Feb 2010

It is easy to communicate with constituents when you are talking about enrollment growth, a large financial gift, faculty accomplishments and new building projects. But what about when the going gets rough? What then? How do you share bad news with individuals, both internal and external, who are vested in your institution?

We've all heard the phrase "communication is a two-way street," and in the best of times, that street is wide open, allowing communication to pass freely between individuals. However, when budget crises arise or times otherwise get tough, the street seems to narrow. People get nervous, and there is much more anxiety involved in the communication process. If the street is suddenly closed because administration is fearful of communicating bad news, there is a massive traffic jam and accidents and fatalities begin to occur. Whether good or bad, institutions must embrace the "communication is a two-way street" philosophy and stay connected with their constituents.

It is human nature for people to ask why. The problem: People also want to lay blame.

To effectively communicate during tough times, you must first learn to effectively communicate when the waters are calm and your organization is experiencing smooth sailing. There are numerous books about communication, but I have found the following principles from Dale Carnegie's book "How to Win Friends and Influence People" to be helpful in producing clear communication:

People need to feel valued and respected. If they feel appreciated, people are much more likely to embrace change and be supportive of administrative decisions.

To be an effective leader, you must listen to your various constituents before making decisions. By listening and accepting suggestions, you engage others in the decision-making process.

We all approach situations from a different perspective. We must remember that our perspective is not necessarily better than someone else's perspective.

Empathy is an important quality to possess. As a leader, we have to make the best decision for the institution as a whole; however, we need to take into account how our decisions impact those around us and how they perceive the situation.

As a leader, we must inspire our constituents to reach the goals set before them and achieve great things. We inspire those around us through clear, positive, and honest communication. When we keep these principles in mind, we will embrace and model a culture of open and honest communication. This ideal can also be summed up in a quote by Stephen Covey: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

The same communication principles used during good times should be applied to communicating difficult subjects and situations. Due to the nature of crisis situations, it is even more imperative that clear communication strategies are employed. One of the biggest dangers to avoid during a crisis is the rumor mill. To combat this pitfall, you must communicate quickly and frequently during a crisis situation. Constituents want to know the following, and you need to be prepared to give them honest answers:

  • What happened? People want to know the facts about the situation.
  • Who does this affect? The bottom line is that people want to know how this will affect them, their job, and their future.
  • Why did this crisis occur? It is human nature for people to ask why. The problem is that people also want to lay blame on someone or something. As an institutional leader, you must present the facts without pointing fingers and getting caught up in the "blame game."
A central location for all communication helps minimize rumors and the spread of misinformation.
  • What is being done to address the situation? This is the most important question to answer. By focusing on the solution, you can move past the problem. That does not mean that you should minimize the crisis or dismiss it, but after addressing the facts and discussing the problem, the natural resolution should be a plan for the future.

Many institutions are currently facing economic challenges and budget crises. Across the country, colleges and universities are experiencing decreased state funding and donor contributions, resulting in challenging financial times for countless higher education institutions. With layoffs looming and programs with low enrollment being evaluated as to their longevity, administrators are faced with the responsibility of rallying the troops and keeping the ship afloat.

Open and honest communication will help you stay the course. In light of our own budget challenges at Mt. Hood Community College—a two-year college in Gresham, Ore., with three locations and an annual enrollment of more than 27,000 students—we have used several tactics to help educate constituents about the challenges the institution is facing. The feedback from elected officials, community leaders, employees, and students has been positive and expresses a common theme of gratitude for the open dialogue and constant communication. Some actions MHCC and others are taking:

  • Develop a weekly financial report and post it on your institution's website.
  • Direct constituents on and off campus to the budget website for the latest information.
  • Respond to all rumors and questions by presenting the facts in writing and posting the information on the budget website.
  • Maintain the budget website and post any and all relevant information in this centralized location. By having one central location for all communication, you will help minimize rumors and the spread of misinformation.
  • Hold town hall meetings to answer questions in person. Have a scribe record the questions and answers so that an excerpt from the meeting can be posted on the budget website.
  • Appoint a designated spokesperson, which may be the institution’s president, to communicate all budget information. This will help to stem the potential for rumors, alleviating the chance that any other communication will be viewed as credible.
  • Outline the budget challenges being faced and request ideas from constituents on cost-saving measures and solutions.
  • Create a special e-mail account to which people can submit budget-related questions and suggestions for solving the problem.
  • Work closely with employee representatives and move thoughtfully through the decision-making process.
  • Make announcements only after a decision has been made and all appropriate parties have been apprised of the decision.
  • Write an opinion editorial or letter to the editor regarding the budget challenges your institution is facing and submit it to local newspapers. This type of communication will help educate community residents about the challenges the institution is facing and the need for community support.

Now more than ever, we must join together to weather the financial storm that is before us. We must share our ideas and pool our resources in an effort to reduce costs and maximize our efforts. As you travel down whatever road is before you, remember that you are not traveling alone. If everyone is to safely arrive at their destination, you must clearly communicate with your fellow travelers about the roadblocks, directions and signs along the way.

John J. Sygielski is president of Mt. Hood Community College (Ore.) and chair-elect of the American Association of Community Colleges.

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