In partnership with PR News, “Lessons Earned” is a series featuring IPR Trustees discussing a hard-fought lesson or triumph that helped to mold or change their career.
We’re living through a surreal global health crisis that is testing all of us personally and professionally. Knowledge and skills in risk and crisis communication have become essential. For leaders, in particular, this unparalleled moment will make or break trust and careers.
As the dean at an academic institution, this situation is demanding my full attention. I keep close communication with my executive team, university administrators, and the campus Incident Management Team (IMT) to make timely decisions and execute actions within my unit.
I lead a school serving approximately 2,450 undergraduates and 150 graduate students in two locations, housed in a university with an enrollment of 24,600. We employ around 125 faculty and staff and over 100 student employees.
Our university activated an emergency preparedness plan to address the COVID-19 outbreak in February. Despite having a plan, our president noted: “We’re going to come out of this situation different than when we went in, and we’re going to make mistakes.” I surely have, but I am working hard to make things right for my school community, which needs timely and accurate information, encouragement, and hope. The aim is to reduce the high levels of anxiety and uncertainty felt by all. Our responses follow a central guiding principle: to prioritize the safety, health, and well-being of our student body.
Initially, I felt constrained by strict communication policies. Messages sent by the university president, provost, and chief resilience officer were the only stream of information my faculty, staff, and students received. However, colleagues made it clear they wanted to hear from me as well. I initiated conversations with my executive team, faculty, and staff about school-specific information, core messaging from university officials, and genuine expressions of concern and team spirit. These have become daily consultations that have resulted in strategies and techniques to keep the community closely informed, encouraging behaviors to protect and support us all. This was critical in serving the university’s priority to preserve academic continuity for the benefit of our students, and ultimately the university overall.
I receive daily confidential IMT briefings and conduct multiple virtual meetings with the university and school executive teams. Shortly after the meetings, I reflect on what information should be shared and the tone I should strike in my next message to the school.
These are some of the lessons I have earned:
– This moment demands empathetic and ethical communication. Our faculty, staff, students and our student’s families need reassurance and solidarity with their individual and collective circumstances. People are juggling family and work lives, with greater pressures at home. Despite the stress of this situation, everyone is working hard, sharing resources and tips to teach remotely, something many of our faculty had long resisted and found intimidating. I encourage this synergy and regularly recognize the inspired work they are doing to adjust to the rapidly changing academic landscape.
– This crisis requires us to strike a balance between a sense of urgency and a call to remain calm. The levels of anxiety and uncertainty are very high, and clear policies, processes, and procedures, combined with necessary agility and flexibility to address circumstances we cannot predict will reflect a sense of control and intentionality.
– Some updates are relevant to all members of the school community, but often specific groups expect guidance and insights that pertain directly to them. Finding efficiencies when email boxes are already flooded strengthens voices of our leaders as trusted sources of critical information.
– We need to be as coordinated as possible ahead of major announcements. At my university, the provost communicates the general messaging to the deans, and we tailor the announcements to our units. I have been proactive in localizing university announcements.
– Consistency and repetition (within reason) are important as we try to capture the attention of our internal audiences and convey information clearly, especially when messages they may be receiving externally can be quite conflicting.
– Everyone around us faces their own set of circumstances, fears, questions, and concerns that deserve both nuanced responses and collective actions.
– Multiple brains are better than one. Empowering those with specialized knowledge and responsibilities — such as human resources, facilities, finance, and student services — is critical to an informed and functional community.
This global pandemic is far from over. The way we live, work, and communicate will be different when this passes. How we navigate these days may result in unanticipated silver linings that guide us to innovative futures. Stay safe, keep healthy, and be well.
Juan-Carlos Molleda is Edwin L. Artzt Dean and professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Follow him on Twitter @GlobalPRMolleda.