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Three Steps for Managing Serious Challenges

How institutions can control difficult events
University Business, Jan 2010

Many colleges and universities are confronting even more complex challenges than usual. Indeed, the timing, intensity, and consequences of some of the most serious challenges qualify them as outright crises.

Managing multiple difficult events such as salary freezes, budget cuts, job reductions, enrollment declines, and rising discount rates can seem overwhelming to even the most experienced among us. Can there be any doubt for higher education leaders that it truly is "lonely at the top" these days?

As is the case with umpires in a baseball game, few people remember the complex situations that are handled well, yet no one forgets those handled poorly—often recalling details for decades. Some of the most memorable, newsworthy, and painful crises arose more from inappropriate reactions to an initial problem than from the problem itself.

Whether your institution is facing a full-fledged organizational crisis, a more contained set of concerns, or you're simply coping with budget issues that are pervasive in a recession, it's a good time to recall some strategies for handling unpleasant and uncomfortable situations effectively.

Here are three steps for assembling a real-time crisis plan that, as with any good plan, should be guided by clear objectives, compelling strategies, and careful day-to-day and even hour-to-hour management:

1. Identify the real problem: Unearthing the cause of a problem is rarely a straightforward, linear exercise in any type of setting. Effective leaders like good doctors know how to see beyond symptoms and presenting problems. The best college presidents and department heads are adept at diagnosing the real problems, identifying their underlying causes, applying a comprehensive solution, and learning from the episode so as not to repeat it.

Digging deeper typically produces more information about the scope and implications of a situation. People sometimes hold back important information, or translate it subjectively, as their needs and circumstances dictate. Creating an emotionally neutral and not excessively judgmental climate can encourage full disclosure. We have consistently found that fear of retribution, unwise finger pointing, and political gamesmanship—the "blame game"—greatly limit the flow of needed information as well as its relative objectivity. You can't possibly know everything in a crisis, but probing in the right manner will help you learn enough to get the job done.

2. Send the right messages at the right time: Some serious challenges will require public disclosure by their very nature, whether your institution is public or private. And in these times, rumor, gossip, and news leaks coupled with ubiquitous social media find stories going public that would never have seen the light of day 10 or 20 years ago. So take the time early in an emerging crisis to craft messages that are appropriate and authentic, balancing description of what is happening with prescriptions explaining what you are doing about it. This is no place to be cute, either, since small problems can become big ones when institutions obfuscate, bend the truth, disclose only partial facts, or otherwise attempt to hide serious problems.

It's a good rule of thumb to accept that most serious institutional challenges or crises will break as news; it's generally just a question of when. If conditions allow, institutions can develop a strategy to shape how and when the news breaks to create a reasonable context for its release.

Training is an essential component of effective crisis communication. It is critically important that leadership be trained in how best to deliver the messages and not to drift too far from them. Developing and circulating a questions and answers document is a proven crisis management tool for any leadership team. Leaders in challenging situations also need to understand the importance of their roles and adopt strict protocols for disclosing information and receiving and responding to telephone and e-mail queries from media, opinion leaders, and other key constituencies.

It's important to remember, as well, that there are no longer any real distinctions between "internal" and "external" audiences. With technology, networking, and mobility, internal and external communications have fused together, which means that it is hardly possible any longer to communicate with one audience while avoiding or delaying communication to other audiences. Attempts to do so may only embitter those left out of the communication, which will then have heard your key message indirectly and through other filters. Assume that people will talk so all people will need to hear the message from you or your president, first. Nobody wants to read about these events in the newspaper, on a blog, or through a Tweet first.

3. Remember the singular nature of higher education: Higher education is a special case. There are time-honored best practices for navigating a crisis or serious challenge in any profession or industry. However, higher education has a particular and unique set of circumstances.

The most successful higher education leaders understand that students and parents are their customers, and communicate with them in times of crisis and otherwise as if their institutional lives depended on it. Retention is a central focus at institutions across the country as students constantly assess whether and how much they are committed to remaining with your institution through to graduation. With the importance colleges place on graduation rates, and given the high cost of losing students, it's important to communicate well to this audience. Current students can easily discern when an institution is managing a serious challenge well and in a reasonably open and collaborative manner. They appreciate being told what is happening, why, and what is being done about it, just as they expect that their voices will be heard in the process.

Faculty is also a massively important constituency, for which it is difficult to find a corollary in any other profession. The best institutions understand that crises present singular opportunities for organizational change, especially in building trust and improving communication and collaboration between administration and faculty. Yes, getting the substance, tone, and timing of communication with faculty is a complex and sometimes painful task. So is presenting faculty with a forum to provide feedback in tough times. Doing both well, however, is the right thing to do and can pay handsome dividends in the long run.

The communication imperative doesn't begin and end with students and faculty, either. Any crisis management plan also requires balanced, timely reporting to these constituents:

Alumni and donors: A major institutional problem can create immediate implications for fundraising, especially for pending major gifts. It is essential that institutional leadership reach out to current and prospective donors to explain what is happening in a crisis and reassure them of the need for and stewardship of their gift. Reactions from alumni may vary based on their status as current givers or non-givers as well as their graduation era. Targeting specific alumni communication by era can make sense in a crisis, since graduates of different ages are likely to have different perceptions of the institution today and of the crisis itself.

Prospective students and families: Your recruitment team is out there making promises and selling the value of your institution every day. They can't possibly avoid discussing challenging circumstances, since your prospects will almost always discover the problem anyway. Addressing tough issues carefully but directly and authentically is always the best approach with prospective students and their parents.

Opinion leaders: Don't forget to reach out to banks, rating agencies, bond holders, government officials, employers, and other officials who may have a vested interest in the institution and who, in some case, are central to the problem or its solution.

Clearly, responding effectively to crisis is complicated business. We know that the consequences of failing to do so are often public, severe, and lasting. While the rewards of effectively managing serious adversity are not always as visible or immediately tangible, they can be felt in the community—in its confidence, its morale, and its momentum to move beyond difficult moments. And those are the precious opportunities worth seizing in the face of serious challenges in a challenging economy.

Maguire Associates is a research-based consulting firm serving educational institutions.

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