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As many authors on the subject of presidential transition have observed, the first year of a college presidency is a critical time in every respect, as the new president strives to learn the culture and to both learn and set expectations and priorities for the institution and the presidency.
An important area where expectations and priorities are set very early in a presidency is in how—including how much and often—the president will communicate with members of the internal college community.
Know the culture/know thyself
A first rule of communication for a new president is to know the culture in which he or she has landed and to determine the established communication rules and expectations. Did the previous president have an open door and an open ear? Was he or she prone to regular communications on matters of importance, and if so, how were these delivered? What was the general tone of presidential communications—informal and casual, or more guarded and “presidential?”
Knowing the answers to these questions does not dictate how a new president should communicate, but it does inform the new president on what those around him or her are used to.
This article is part of a bimonthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.
Equally important is the ability of a new president to understand his or her own communication tendencies and style and to be true to them The consistency of voice, type and occasion for communication does matter. Is the new president going to communicate only the good news and delegate out more challenging communications? Will she or he communicate regularly on matters of importance to the college and if so, how often and in what manner?
One strategy for establishing and maintaining consistency in such things is to establish a close working relationship between the president and the communications office or individual and to regularly vet communication opportunities, voice and manner.
At Fullerton College (California), the president and his public information officer work in tandem.
“Within my first full month as president, she and I developed a full-scale internal communications plan,” said Fullerton President Rajen Vurdien. “We revamped our weekly, internal newsletter and created a quarterly president's update which we distribute to all staff.”
No single communication strategy is best in every setting. Strategy should suit the president’s own style, the options available for communication, the size of the institution and accepted methods of communication within a given setting. In Missouri, St. Charles Community College (SCC) combined a number of communication strategies. In addition to regularly scheduled opportunities for face-to-face interaction with the president, the president routinely communicates on matters of importance to the college via broadcast e-mail updates and through his blog. Experience has shown that people appreciate these regular communications despite the relatively impersonal quality of the medium.
The AACC Leadership Suite comprises programs designed to provide emerging and seasoned leaders with professional development and renewal opportunities.
As in all things, there are cautions about such regular communications. First, don’t overdo the frequency of these communications. People want to hear from the president on matters of college importance; they don’t necessarily want to hear from him or her several times a week. At SCC, updates on matters of importance every few weeks seem about right, though certainly frequency depends to some extent on events of the day, week or month.
In terms of frequency, the caveat is the opposite for the blog. Starting a blog may be an easy thing to do. Keeping up with it with regular entries of real interest is the challenge. Research on blog readership shows that frequency of posts relates directly to readership volume. If you don’t post, you lose your audience.
Another caution is to match the method of communication with the content of the communication. SCC uses e-mail for more formal, business-like communications but also occasionally for “messages of the heart,” such as words of praise and support, celebration of the teaching and learning community, and to comment on local and national events that affect the community. The president’s blog is a similar mix of tone and content, but is more often directed at personal reflections and stories that put a human face on the presidency and the president.
Caveats to consider
In general, whatever communication pattern is set early on should be adhered to unless evidence emerges to change course. If the frequency, manner, tone and content of presidential communications appear to resonate with the audience of these communications, then by all means, keep it up. If it becomes obvious that more face-to-face communications or less frequent communications might be in order, then make the shift.
The same questions and caveats emerge for these communications with the board of trustees. Establish explicitly the expectations of the board for frequency and focus of communications about college business outside of the usual venues for board communications, such as regular meetings. At SCC, communications and updates to faculty and staff are routinely shared with the board, but this may not be appropriate in some settings and some boards may not want to see such messages.
Finally, a caveat about the dangers of regular communication and transparency and the potential expectation that everything of importance will be treated in this manner: Clearly the president encounters those circumstances where transparency is not immediately possible. In these instances, a president who has created an open platform for communication may face criticism that he or she has violated the standards set for open communication. The president should make clear from the outset that he or she will disclose as much as possible in all matters of importance to the college, but that some circumstances will require more limited disclosure.
Review and move forward
As with any effort, the review, reflection and revision of communications strategies are necessary, especially following the end of the first year of a college presidency. At SCC, the president will complete his first year in October, following the launch of a new long-range strategic plan. Undoubtedly, the fall will bring with it a great deal of reflection and review as the college moves forward to plan well into the future.
At Fullerton College, the president recently completed the second year of his presidency.
“I wouldn’t say that how I communicated changed, but rather the substance of what I said did,” Vurdien said. “It may sound cliché, but during my first year, I made a concerted effort to listen to staff and faculty and not impose my vision on them. While I still do listen, during my second year, I found my own voice and was able to be a bit bolder.”
Chesbrough is president of St. Charles Community College (SCC) in Missouri. McDorman is vice president of marketing and communications at SCC and past president of the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations.
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