Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Communicators, you've got a new cautionary tale for your CEO

The president of Mount Saint Mary's university resigned this week under pressure, and the full story offers communicators a great cautionary tale you can use with your top spokespeople.

It's a multi-part tale of miscommunication. First, the president used a violent and inappropriate analogy in front of sources. They were so upset, they shared it with the student newspaper. Then the president fired several executives in retaliation over the issue being discussed, itself a heinous idea: a policy of weeding out struggling freshmen to improve the university's retention numbers. Why do it that way? It's a path, he thought, to improving the university's rankings in the US News & World Report list of top universities, aka a public relations move.

The analogy? Using a Glock to kill bunnies. I don't even need to make things up to fill this blog.

From the New York Times coverage:
In January, the article by two student journalists, Rebecca Schisler and Ryan Golden, in The Mountain Echo reported two notable pieces of news. It said that the administration was planning to cull struggling freshmen as part of an effort to improve retention numbers — a major factor in rankings published in publications like U.S. News & World Report — and that Mr. Newman had used startling language to convince a skeptical professor last fall of the idea. 
“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” Mr. Newman is quoted as saying. “You just have to drown the bunnies.” 
He added, "Put a Glock to their heads."
In my storytelling series, we looked at whether your metaphor is working, or working against you, and advised testing even your favorite metaphors to see how they'll read with your audience. That clearly didn't happen here. And I've written about what happens When your out-front person uses an inside voice, as in those public talks where the university president starts tossing around technical insider terms about issues like fundraising in front of donors. But this is another kind of third rail for your top spokesperson, if she's the kind of CEO with a sharp tongue in private settings. Those conversations can offend listeners in private settings to the point where they feel no need to withhold reporting what they heard to news media.

The harsh reality? Someone that harsh in conversation is unlikely to have the good internal boundaries needed to control his speech in public, in which case I recommend my list of 9 books for communicators with big-ego experts. Even if you can't change your sharp-tongued CEO, it's worth sending this coverage around with a reminder to your senior management that private conversations aren't necessarily private, along with an offer to help them hone their analogies if not their sharp tongues.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by anemptygun

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