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Where Communication Is Revered, Not Practiced

Lip service to values aside, candid communication about the business, politics, finance and even reasons for being of universities is difficult to find.

April 26, 1998|BRUCE ERICKSON | Bruce Erickson is former director of public relations at Cal State Northridge, now in private practice

"University people love to innovate away from home," John Gardner said years ago. He could have just as well used the word "communicate."

For people who pay lip service to values such as respect for diversity of ideas and the freedom to think, speak, write, create and discuss, we on college campuses too rarely communicate candidly--either to those on campus or off--about the business, politics, finance and even the very reasons for being of our universities.

Evidence of this can be seen in most official campus publications: news releases, web sites, faculty and staff newspapers, annual reports and alumni magazines. They are remarkably void of meaningful discussion and information about issues related either to the power and politics of campus life or to social issues that universities must face.

These publications rarely quote dissenting opinions about common pocketbook issues of promotion, tenure and merit pay; rarely explain budget processes and outcomes; rarely mention employee or administrator salaries; and rarely address in any substantive way contemporary moral and legal issues such as affirmative action and preferential admissions. For example, Title IX, which mandates gender equity, is 25 years old. But on most campuses, it is still dangerous territory for serious discussion and institutional self-assessment because faculty and administrators know they have been slow to comply with the law.

Even on the most mundane and perfunctory of matters, senior faculty and administrators keep their views and comments hidden from the unwashed masses: part-time and adjunct faculty, clerical workers and others outside the "beltway" of campus politics and power. They often also exclude the public and their representatives, the news media.

The beltway encompasses executive officers, of course, but also--more importantly and less obvious to outsiders--the faculty governance structure. Senior faculty are often among the most contemptuous of the duty to communicate. Instead they prefer to micromanage communication, selecting the few facts and topics that are safe to discuss.

They sometimes argue that campus issues are too complex for commoners. Better not to communicate at all than to do so imperfectly, they would say.

Or they argue that open communication would fragment, not unite, the campus and detract from the goal of "building a sense of campus community." This argument ignores the fact that one cannot build campus community while excluding many of its members from serious discussion.

The assumption that sensitive matters are best dealt with by a priestly caste--administrators and senior faculty--is analogous to the old governmental dodge of invoking national security. If certain matters become public, administrators argue, the news could bring down the wrath of legislators (in the case of public institutions) or trustees (in the case of private ones) or donors (in both cases).

I speak as former director of public relations, and my viewpoint may seem strange because public relations in the popular mind typically involves manipulating and slanting information and micromanaging its flow, all for the purpose of creating an image. That was probably true at one time, but it works only with unpredictable results. Richard Nixon offers a case study in the likely consequences of "stonewalling" and willful noncommunication.

Among the most successful public relations campaigns seen in modern times occurred after several Tylenol users were killed by ingesting tainted capsules. Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol's manufacturer, faced a massive crisis of public confidence. Acting on the advice of their public relations consultants, they neither hid nor manipulated information. They chose instead a strategy of full disclosure, keeping the public informed at every step of the investigation. The public gained, not lost, confidence in the product, and when it was returned to stores after having been pulled for several months, its market share remained steady.

As a result of the Tylenol case, full disclosure became the norm in public relations crises. But why wait for a crisis to develop? It stands to reason that a policy of open communication, as frightening as it might seem to some, doesn't foment crises but forestalls them. That is the pragmatic advice that former Newsweek editor Jerrold K. Footlick gives in his new book "Truth and Consequences: How Colleges and Universities Meet Public Crises."

Footlick analyses a number of well-known communication crises faced in recent years by Stanford University (indirect costs scandal), the University of Georgia (the Jan Kemp story), University of South Carolina (presidential misfeasance), Brown University (sensationalized coverage of a prostitution ring) and others.

Footlick gives good, practical advice to people inside the beltway about how to communicate in moments of crisis, but I would like to add a new argument for candor, perhaps a quixotic one.

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