Archive for November, 2011

This week I have been preparing for a trip to India.  I will be attending a meeting of higher education leaders and politicians from both countries, and our purpose will be to discuss the potential of productive collaboration between insitutions.

I have also been asked to make a presentation about the potential of collaborative global partnerships, and to join in a panel discussion on the topic. My being able to sit in on meetings of the American Council on Education’s (ACE) Blue Ribbon Panel on Global Engagement last year was extremely helpful in my preparation. The panel’s purpose was to assess the implications of the globalization of higher education for ACE member insitutions.

I reflected on the Blue Ribbon Panel”s discussions in light of my assigned presentation topic, and concluded: 

(1) Virtually every institution in the world will have to assess the impact of globalization on it, and take appropate steps. Even if extensive activity abroad is not in an institution’s mission or vision, changes in patterns of student recruiting and migration, and in global fund-raising, are likely to change everyone’s marketpace.  And there certainly will be changes in curriculum, and in patterns of research and publicaton. 

(2) When an institution ventures out around the world, there will be both anticipated and unanticipated problems. Even the anticipated ones can be more overwhelming than thought.  There can even be internal push-back from faculty and staff related to cost. In addition, relocating faculty families can become very complicated.  Travel costs are high, and getting higher.  Bureaucratic hassles can be maddening. Language and culture often become serous barriers when actually functioning in a new society.  What about academic freedom and internet policies? And those who thought it would be possible to make money abroad will sometimes discover that the opposite is actually the case.

All this said, globalization is a fact of life, no doubt about it. Coming changes will clearly affect us all.  As I head to India I will be aware of all these problems. But I will also be realizing that eventually we all will be immersed in a global  marketplace. Collaborative partberships, in one form or another, are likely to be one viable way forward.  So, I will look forward to exploring how all this might unfold between the US and India in the days ahead. Stay tuned.

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In corporate management we often use the phrase, “walk the talk.”  This week I found myself explaining its power as a strategic communication tool to a group of university students in a public relations class.

I was invited to the class as a guest to explain the field of “public affairs” in general, but more specifically to talk about why a university might want a presence in Washington, and TCU’s goals for my work there.

When I first went to Washington my focus was to assess whether I could find additional  federal support for some of our research and other projects, as well as to get us more involved in influencing the issues and regulations that were shaping our future.  I explained that just as I arrived there the legislature froze all earmarks, which were the main  source of federal project funding. Grants also became harder to get, and the passing of the new Higher Education Act resulted in more regulations than ever before…more than 24 categories of them to be exact! 

And so early on it became clear that additional federal funding would have to await another day, and that my primary focus would be to bring my institution to the table with the other leaders of our industry to address the big issues facing us. In other words, I must get my chancellor elected to the boards of the president’s associations, and then work hand-in-hand myself with their staffs.

The real point of all this for the class, however, was that I quickly learned that you can only ever be seen as a leader in your industry when you are “at the table” with the others who are leading it.  You can send out all the materials in the world you want to tell your story, but your institution’s stature and recognition will have a ceiling until you show up in person and get involved.

The key lesson, then, for the students was to recognize the shere power of personal out-front leadership as a tool to build brand identity and institutional reputation.  Whenever you try to build your brand primarily with a media campaign, admittedly your visibility goes up.  But when the campaign ends, it also tends to come down. Media driven reputation building is an up and down proposition. But when the president and other key leaders all understand brand messaging, and repeatedly walk-the-talk, magic can happen. Institutional stature gradually grows, and what’s more, it tends to have permanence.

There is no doubt in my mind that even in this new social media world, a world that requires simultaneous multi-platform communication initiatives to cut through mass media clutter, the only way to institutional prominence is for its leaders to be on the same message page, and to constantly be out front walking the talk.  Then, and only then, do people say: “Look at what they are doing out there, that place is really taking off!” 

A strong and dynamic organizational “image” is not achieved though dramatic campus pictures. Rather it’s the public perception that the professionals and executives leading the institution know exactly what they are doing, and know precisely how to explain it!

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I argued in last week’s post that standard crisis management procedures go out the window when there is no way to quickly find and report the truth about what happened. In crises like the one at PSU, facts dribble out over time. Sometimes it takes a long period of time. All that professional communicators can do in a situation like this is to report the facts as they come to know them.

There are always people who think they knew there were problems for a long time, and they were being covered up.  But in the case of truly professional communicators, there is a difference between this kind of “knowing,” and knowing for certain. I remember a situation where a television news director said to me, “You and I both know there are problems in that program.” And I replied, ” If you could prove it you would have already reported it, and the same goes for me!”    

A retired PSU professor wrote me following my last post pointing out that while I may be right about knowing all the facts at the moment a crisis breaks, “the ‘myth’ of  ‘JoePa’ was officially endorsed and nurtured by the PSU PR people and used for fund-raising for years.  What part does communication play, he asked, in repairing the damages?”

My response is that a two-part initiative is required.  The first part is to handle each moment when new facts emerge as a new crisis: Prepare a fact sheet, appoint the most appropriate spokesman, tell the whole story as now understood, and do it quickly. 

But a second part is now most critical: Clarify your brand identity message points, find student and academic stories that reinforce those points, and tell those stories aggressively in all your media platforms. Focus your efforts on your most important publics, and be prepared to sustain the effort indefinitely. In short, you must treat the situation as if you are building a new brand.

When both parts are implemented separately, but concurrently, eventually added crisis facts decline and brand reinforcement stories dominate.  In time, the brand is indeed restored. How long it takes will vary related to how long it takes to get all the crisis facts out, and exhausted.

Some have reported this week that PSU crisis repair will not take as long as many think.  I say, if all the bad apples disappear quickly, and legal proceedings unfold efficiently, these reporters could be right as far as the general public is concerned.

But, I speak from experience when I said last week that many associated with the institution will feel personally betrayed, including those professional communicators who bought into the myth. For them, deep and sour feelings will continue for a long time.

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This week, the sex scandal at Penn State that cost the jobs of the winningest coach in football history, and a highly respected university president, was an American tragedy of the first order. It is one of those horrible events that brings an empty, sour feeling inside… one that settles in the pit of the stomach and just won’t go away.

Consultants and commentators have weighed-in suggesting that the situation has been grossly mishandled. Of course, they would. It’s their job to think they could have handled it better! “Get all the facts, and get them all out quickly, ” is their conventional advice.  “Tell the whole truth, and leave no unreported facts that surely will come out later.”  “Do the right thing from the very beginning,” they say. “In Penn State’s case, the guilty parties should have been fired long ago.” Indeed, judgements abound about what should have been done, and it’s all good advice. 

But… you most likely will get the word about a crisis like this in a shocking phone call just as you settle down late in the evening with a glass of wine or two, or even worse… when you are sound asleep in the middle of the night!  “Not now,” you shout. I have so many other deadlines to deal with tomorrow. I don’t even know where to start!”

An experienced communication officer knows all the “rules” about crisis management. But, finding all the facts at the worst possible time about a scandal like this can be nearly  impossible, let alone finding them quickly. You can’t tell a whole truth that you don’t know. And what makes it worse is that people tend to filter truth quite differently when they know they did something really dumb!

I know! I have been through several serious athletics crises over the years, and what comes to mind now is that there is no way to really fix the Penn State situation. You prepare a statement with whatever facts you can find quickly. You make a fact sheet so you can be consistent each time you answer questions. You contact the affected parties first, and then the press. You try to follow the crisis chapter in the textbook to the letter. This is the way it’s supposed to happen. 

The awful reality, however,  is that most of the time you will actually learn about a crisis like this from the press! Their’s is the very first call you get.  “I’ll look into it and get back to you,”  is all you can say as the satellite TV trucks pull into your driveway!  Now what?  Already, the situation seems beyond control. 

As you investigate you find that each player in the drama has a different understanding of his or her responsibility. Once they passed the matter on to someone else, they are certain they have no further concern. And eventually, everyone in the chain of command is able to conclude to their own satisfaction that they did what they could. Responsibility now is someone elses.  So what can you say until due process takes its course?

The public, however, always thinks the communication officer and senior officials know the complete truth.  They are just not telling it, or are covering up something, or are spinning the facts in some way. But truthfully, you may never know the whole truth.  Bits and pieces of new facts, opinions and truths will continue to roll out. Decisions about futures and careers now will take time, and the whole ugly episode is likely to remain a big mess for a long time.  You keep updating your fact sheet. You try to cut your losses. It’s about all you can do.

My experience suggests that scars from crises like this almost always linger for years.  This is so, even when all the crisis management rules have been followed. Eventually the institution will move on. Time does heal.  But for many Penn State students, faculty, staff, alumni, trustees, and others like me, the ache in the pit of the stomach will continue for a very long time. 


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This week I have been thinking about the advanced seminar in strategic integrated marketing communication (often referred to as IMC) I will be teaching in the spring.  Enrolled will be graduate students and a few advanced seniors, and the question on my mind has been:  “What is it that they most need from me now?”

All of them will have taken the basic introductory subjects, learned fundamental research methods, mastered all the essential new and social media tactics, and even will have taken some advanced directed study courses. So, after much reflection about the lessons I learned over the years, I found myself beginning the course description: “We will first address internal politics, and the other barriers often confronted (and rarely anticipated) in organizations while trying to do our work.” 

I went on to list other topics such as critical thinking, strategy, leadership, planning, and problem-solving. But, I also found myself once again concluding that these students will have to be prepared to teach people in any organization they work in about what they do, any why it can be so very powerful.

The basic challenge for these advanced students will be to clearly understand themselves how it all works, to be able to explain it, and then to inspire others to do great things.  It’s a matter of living this subject matter, teaching it,  practicing it, and then adjusting what is done next from what was just learned.

Managing a staff later on will turn out to be much the same kind of challenge.  At first I felt self-conscious when I came into a staff meeting sounding like a teacher.  But now I know that “learner” and “teacher” are other words for manager. And so, from day one, I strongly believe that everyone in our profession must continue to learn, and be prepared to teach.

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