Welcome to the second of a two-part series in Communicating in a Crisis, with my friend and colleague Grant Heston, the Vice President for Communications and Marketing at Florida Southern College. We are sharing ideas to help you in your leadership during this challenging time.
Carolyn Maue: Grant, tell us a time of when you led through a crisis and how you communicated. What worked? What would you do differently?
Grant Heston: Years ago, the NCAA announced an investigation into the University of Central Florida’s athletics programs. During several months, I developed multiple possible responses and communications, including the dismissal of top athletics leadership.
When the report arrived, it was as bad as we feared. UCF immediately launched its plan and removed athletics leadership, suspended others and reorganized organizational responsibilities and reporting relationships in athletics.
The plan included a detailed timeline, starting at 8 a.m., when affected employees were notified about dismissals and suspensions. The next steps included deactivating email accounts, university credit cards, key access to facilities and securing cars owned by UCF that were used by dismissed employees.
That level of detail allowed us to ensure employees (those leaving and staying) heard the news directly from UCF leadership, rather than through rumors or media. Nothing slipped through the cracks.
When we shared the news with the university community and the public, UCF took full responsibility for what took place and apologized for its actions. Our messaging focused on creating a “Culture of Compliance” in athletics to address what went wrong. We repeatedly used that phrase.
We received national and local kudos for our decisive, well-managed response, which stood in contrast to how other institutions fumbled responding to the NCAA. Our preparation, bold and timely communications also helped UCF quickly hire outstanding new athletics leadership.
We paid close attention to our messages to employees and athletics donors, two key constituencies. But looking back, we could have devoted more time to those groups. This was a tremendous shock to the system, and if doing this again I would build in more outreach and messaging to those groups.
CM: How does a leader be sure that they are reaching different audiences, with different needs, beliefs, etc.?
GH: The best advice is to meet them where they are.
For instance, at Florida Southern College, we know that on social media, Instagram followers are mostly students, Facebook are parents and Twitter is a mix.
That allows you to tailor messages for those specific audiences. We’re past the one-size-fits-all approach.
As a leader, you also need to 1) ensure your communications teams purposefully seek out stories and feedback from diverse groups and 2) recruit and retain diverse communications employees who help you see multiple perspectives and reach different audiences.
CM: This is an incredibly important time to build new ways of assuring that you as a leader are reaching all of your constituents, and meeting their needs. The awareness that has increased as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement gives us all an opportunity to invite different voices to the table to help us do that.
CM: Grant, what is your “Secret Sauce?” What makes your leadership, and your communication, different and special?
GM: Your question assumes that I have “different and special” leadership and communications skills!
CM: Which I know you do!
In a crisis, I seek out the best, most diverse perspectives I can find. Because I’ve been blessed to have caring mentors and super smart, creative colleagues, I’d be foolish not to listen to them closely. I then combine their advice with my own instincts and develop a plan. Then we execute the plan to the best of our ability. I work hard to be a calm, level-headed voice during a crisis. Being angry, anxious and generally difficult doesn’t do anything to help solve the problem. It makes things worse.
Every leader also needs someone to tell it like it is and ask the hard questions. I’ve done that for multiple university and college presidents. “You don’t pay me to tell you it’s sunny outside when it’s pouring rain,” I’ve said many times.
I highly recommend the book The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath. It applies to crisis management, but also how an institutional culture of transparency, empathy and customer service builds trust and brand loyalty. It’s an eye-opening read.
CM: This last question is one that is close to my heart, and a value that you and I share: What is the role of fun, humor or irreverence during a crisis?
GH: Great question! Humor is essential for leaders and their teams in surviving a crisis.
During a stressful time at UCF, we were preparing for a critically important public meeting. We were working late the night before and the team was clearly tired and anxious. At one point, someone said we needed an inspiring speech. Without thinking, I jumped up on a table and gave a dramatic, over-the-top recreation of one of Hollywood’s most unintentionally cheesy movie speeches. It was ridiculous and embarrassing, but it worked to break the tension and get us through the night and next day.
Years later, people still mention it to me as a leadership moment they remember. I’m just thankful there’s no video …
CM: I am sure there are many of us who are grateful there is no video of some of our past experiences! We need to remember to keep turning off the camera! Grant, thanks so much for your words of advice and for sharing your wisdom, insights and tips!