Communicating in the Perfect Storm

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By Martin Flegg Chart.PR
Martin is a chartered independent PR practitioner currently working in the higher education sector. He specialises in internal communication, change communication, employee engagement and regularly blogs on his website ggelfIC.com where you can find some more of his lessons from higher education.

Right now, change and uncertainty are acute in the higher education (HE) sector. Institutions are being battered by hurricane force winds of change driven by a jet stream of issues which just keep on coming. There is never a dull moment for HE communicators like me, and resilience and skills to communicate during this perfect storm of uncertainly are required to stay ahead.

For those unfamiliar with HE, a plethora of major issues are contributing to extreme uncertainty in the sector including intense competition in the UK for a diminishing number of students and a cultural transition towards consumerism. Add in ever shifting government education policy, potential changes to the funding model and the comparatively minor issue of Brexit and you have a perfect storm which has the potential to drive some institutions to the brink of oblivion.   

Faced with this onslaught it’s tempting to batten down the hatches, communicate as little as possible and hope that this perfect storm blows over. Unfortunately it won’t, and the difficult decisions being made in HE because of this change maelstrom mean that saying nothing is rarely an option. Internal and external stakeholders demand transparency from the leadership teams making those decisions. To fail to plan a communications response is a plan to fail outright, with the need to defend institutional reputations and maintain stakeholder advocacy at the top of the to-do list for many HE communicators.  

The big question is, how do you plan to communicate in an environment where there is so much uncertainty and so many unknowns?

Speculate to accumulate

Horizon scanning to understand the current operating environment and speculating about the next likely flash point is time well invested even if the communication interventions identified are never actually used.

Scenario planning with the leadership team and agreeing what you would say in particular circumstances means you will be ready to deploy a reactive communications response if challenged or to proactively take advantage of communication opportunities should these manifest themselves. 

  • Invest time in building and regularly reviewing a communications grid to capture the potential issues which may require an internal and/or external response.
  • Include known events as well as potentials and their timing. There are plenty of knowns in HE such as league table publication dates, Clearing, UCAS deadlines and the release of results from regulatory surveys such as the National Students Survey, so start with those.
  • Treat the events and issues in the grid as communication triggers and create a loose plan around them. For example, indicate the likely channels you would use.
  • Score each trigger on the grid to indicate the potential negative or positive impacts and the likelihood of occurrence to enable prioritisation.
  • Identify the key messages for positive and negative scenarios relating to each trigger. Think beyond the obvious. Will this resurrect other issues and what will you say this time around, albeit in a different context?
  • Be mindful of what has been communicated before. Cross reference previous messages to issues on the grid. These will be a good message bank to refer back to for consistency in the heat of the moment.
  • Allocate owners to each of the identified issues on the grid. This should be a senior leader and a member of the communications team. Clear ownership will eliminate delays in decision making and sign off when the time comes.

Uncertainty should never be used as an excuse to not think about communication or to communicate at all. It is, in fact, at times like these that communication is the most important tool available to help HE institutions weather the perfect storm.

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