Latest blog: So we never forget...

This day, Sept. 11, remains in our collective minds as one of horror, of tragedy and, ultimately, of the triumph of the spirit.

 

September 11, 2001 was a beautiful fall day. At Shippensburg University where I was Executive Director for University Communications and Marketing, members of the university’s leadership team were having our annual opening breakfast. When we got back to our respective offices, news began coming in about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Televisions were hurriedly turned on as we gathered in the conference room of then-President Anthony F. Ceddia.

 

Video showed flames coming from the tower. Minutes later, a second plane hit the second tower.

Like the rest of the country, and world, we were stunned and shocked. How could this be happening? Then it happened again. A third plane had just hit the Pentagon. Word was then spreading of a fourth hijacked plane was flying across Pennsylvania, destination unknown but assumed to be heading toward Washington, D.C. That plane later crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pa., less than 100 miles from Shippensburg.

 

Discussion immediately began about what this meant for the campus community, and what needed to be done during this chaotic time. We implemented plans to provide various support structures and began communications with the campus. During the next few days and for several subsequent weeks, we used various methods to keep the campus community up-to-date on what was happening locally and nationally.

 

This was pre-social media so communicating was limited to the then-current methods, including e-mail, phonemail and, most importantly, face-to-face meetings, either collectively or individually.

 

Questions as to why it happened, and how it happened were asked and discussed in every possible venue on campus. No matter what the venue or location, central to all of those conversations was the personal contact everyone needed at that time. From candlelight vigils, to a walk-in hour with the university president to a campus-wide memorial service, the campus family shared its grief, hopes and prayers together.

 

Nowhere was this contact more important or more prevalent than that between faculty and students. Whether it was during class periods, in solemn office-hour meetings, or conversations while walking across campus, faculty members provided an invaluable service to the students. Their traditional role of teacher and mentor took on new meaning as they helped guide students who had never seen the horrors of war toward an understanding of the events, their causes and their eventual meaning.

 

Several days after the tragedies, I was in a conversation with a faculty member and we were discussing the university’s response. I said that the guidance faculty members shared with the students was the true foundation of Shippensburg University, and, in fact, the true strength of our nation.

The faculty member noted that she always knew what she was doing — teaching — was important, but she never felt more valuable or needed than she did in the aftermath of this nation’s tragedy as she met with students to help them during this difficult time.

 

No electronic communication, no computer technology, no impersonal sharing of information by videoconferencing can replace what she and her fellow faculty members had done, nor can it measure up to the support or solace she had provided.

 

Technology may move at the speed of light, but it can never move at the speed of the heart.

 

Today, on the 19th anniversary of that tragic day, we can honor the memory of the victims by living our lives as best as we can, and by holding our loved ones closer as we all see the fragility — and sanctity — of life.

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'I shouldn't have said that...'

As complicated as crisis communications can be, there remain some basics all of us who have lived through one, or more, know. Two things to always remember: Don’t say today what you’ll regret tomorrow and everything you say today is being recorded.

 

When you violate those, you will probably meet karma and, well, we all know what karma can do. Case in point: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

 

In May, DeSantis ripped into the media in a tirade about how wrong they were about the virus affecting Florida. According to multiple media reports of that encounter, he said: “So any insinuation otherwise is just typical, partisan narrative trying to be spun and part of the reason is that you've got a lot of people in your profession who waxed poetically for weeks and weeks about how Florida was going to be just like New York. Wait two weeks, Florida is going to be next. Just like Italy, wait two weeks.' Well hell, we're eight weeks away from that and it hasn't happened!”

 

Oops. Florida is now one of the virus hot spots in the nation. Since July 1, Florida has had more than 47,000 cases, including more than 11,000 on July 4. Sadly, since his comments, more than 1,600 have died in Florida. His remarks were, to say the least, premature and are a classic example of saying things that will either prove not to be true or make it appear you are trying to blame others. The media didn’t wax poetically, it reported what scientists and others were saying was going to happen. And it did.

 

DeSantis is not the only elected official to make this mistake. That has especially been true during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example:

  • Multiple officials have repeatedly said the virus is under control. It isn’t.

  • Multiple officials have said it was only a few cases. It’s now more than 2.9 million in the U.S.

  • Multiple officials have said it’s not as deadly as the flu. More than 129,000 have died from it in the U.S.

  • Multiple officials have said heat will kill it. The virus is spiking in Florida, Texas and Arizona, states known for their extreme heat.  

  • Multiple officials have said the economy is roaring back. The stock market is down 3,000 points from its high in January and nearly 18 million people are unemployed.

 

All of these statements are now available online and, as with DeSantis, are coming back like the Ghost of Christmas Past to highlight their mistakes. All public figures, especially those in very high profile and/or elected positions, need to think about what they say because those recordings will last long after there are in their positions. But, while they are in their offices, they can be used against them in our current fractured and divided nation.

 

As an objective observer, I had to wonder where are these leaders’ advisors? People like us who are there to ask the hard questions, point out the potential problems with such comments, and, in some cases, to ask as the conscience of the organization.

 

Sometimes the hardest part of our jobs is to tell our bosses no. No, saying making that comment is not a good idea. No, that doesn’t help our organization. No, you are not going to look good if you do that.

 

In the coming years, 2020 will become case studies in communications and public relations by students in a number of colleges and universities throughout the nation. I hope they find something good.

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The voice of reason

Shippensburg University in December, 1999, gave an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the leading U.S. scientific voice on the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

In selecting commencement speakers and individuals to receive an honorary degree, university leaders looked for individuals who have made extraordinary contributions in their respective fields and who have had a significant impact on the world.

 

Dr. Fauci’s selection was an easy one. He was honored for his work  in combating AIDS. In the 1980s, his research into the disease was known worldwide as was his advocacy for continued scientific studies.

 

I was chair of the Commencement Committee and had the privilege to work with Dr. Fauci before his visit and hosted him while he was on campus. During his visit he was a consummate professional who, in addition to receiving the degree, shared his knowledge, experiences and wisdom with the graduates and a field house packed with their families and friends. He was very unassuming and was humble in his acceptance of the degree.

 

Several years later, the university had a cluster of meningitis cases at the start of the fall semester. University leadership called Dr. Fauci for advice. He graciously provided information and guidance we needed to ensure the safety of the students and the campus community.

 

Since then, he has been at the forefront of confronting other diseases such as SARS, the swine flu and Ebola.

 

From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially here in the U.S., he has been the voice of reason, of science, and of truth. His calming demeanor, his ease in explaining the science to non-scientists, and his no-nonsense way of telling people how to solve the problem give us hope that there will be an end to this.

 

When he talks, I listen. When he gives advice, I take it. Our country is blessed to have him at the scientific helm of this battle.

 

 

The Washington Post profiled him recently in this article: https://wapo.st/3djiZjQ. The Post also did a story on how Dr. Fauci handles the misinformation that is presented during the administrations's briefings.: https://wapo.st/2UtrRuS.

 

It gives a fascinating insight into Dr. Fauci and where we go from here.

One message, one voice

If there is one truism in crisis communications it is this: One message, one voice.

 

Every organization, public or private, will, at some time, have a crisis. How that organization, especially its leadership, responds has an indelible impact on the organization’s reputation and in its service to its citizens, its customers or its members.

 

A primary goal of any communication response to a crisis is to quickly and effectively provide information the various constituencies need and want. All responses should also be guided by the belief that whatever is done is done because it is the right thing to do, not the right thing to protect the organization and its leaders.

 

The fundamental way to do that is through a unified message. The same message repeated in different ways in different mediums. The same message, changing as needed, but always one that is well planned and well executed.

 

When messages become garbled or mixed or even contradicted, it leaves the public wondering about the organization’s effectiveness to handle the crisis and about its commitment to them.

 

We’ve all learned some valuable tips through personal experience, working with our colleagues or watching others handle various crises. Some things to remember:

  • Prepare a crisis response plan and have an emergency response team.

  • Designate a spokesperson. This will be the point person for all communications, will centralize release of all information and ensure the organization’s message is clear.

  • Be first with the information. If there’s a problem, tell people.

  • Be honest. If you lie, they will catch you. That’s especially true in a world in which search engines abound and information is readily accessible.

  • Be accurate with the information. Don’t wing it. No one can be an expert on everything. A smart leader knows when to let others, who are experts in their field, speak.

 

Communication is an ever-evolving field. Technology has obviously changed, perhaps even revolutionized, crisis communications in recent years. But the field has also been forced to respond to societal changes brought on by that same technology. Society is more interconnected than ever and that means our use of a specific communications method is based as much on its emotional and psychological impact as on its effectiveness.

 

But as important as technology is during a crisis never forget: All crises are, ultimately, about people, and every effort must be made to respond appropriately and sensitively.

What to remember in a crisis

From the federal government to local government, from higher education to basic education, crises seem to be the norm. These crises appear and disappear almost daily. Some may have lasting impact on our country while others are more localized in their effect.

 

From a crisis communication perspective, these are professionally interesting and present an opportunity for those of us in the field to rethink how we approach a crisis and how we can more effectively assist our clients during such difficult times.

 

Here are some basic tips I give to help them:

  • Think about what can go wrong/Never underestimate the possibility of something going wrong. You may think a crisis can't happen to you, but it can…and probably will. You can't plan for every eventuality, but you can plan for the most common ones.

  • Prepare a crisis response plan. The time to manage a crisis is before the crisis starts.

  • Designate a spokesperson. One person speaking for the organization ensures that the message will be consistent and on point.

  • Establish a relationship with media. This will enable them to know they can contact you when needed and that they can trust you.

  • Have a good working relationship with everyone in your operation. One disgruntled employee can ruin all of your other efforts during a crisis.

  • Ask advice from others who have been through it. More than likely someone, somewhere has gone through what you’re going through.

 

Most of all, remember that a crisis is an opportunity to show what your values are and to show the true heart of your organization.

We're better than this

While the nation remains in the midst the current pandemic, it also faces a crisis of morality and civility. At a time when we should use our collective strength to save lives, some see wearing a mask as some kind of subjugation or violation of a phantom Constitutionally-permitted freedom.

This crisis is exacerbated by leadership failures at all levels of government and, sadly, lack of honesty in communicating the gravity of the pandemic. It is, however, a societal failure as evidenced by this recent story in USAToday: “Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, recently talked about heightened threats to him and his family and his security detail. Fauci made the comments on CNN's "The Axe Files" podcast and said that many of the threats come from people who are angry and believe, “I'm interfering with their life because I'm pushing a public health agenda.”

Even sadder is this quote in the story by Dr. Fauci: “The kind of not only hate mail but actual, serious threats against me are not good. It's tough. Serious threats against me, against my family, my daughters, my wife. I mean, really? Is this the United States of America? But it's real. It really is real.”

Think about that for a minute. The individual who has dedicated his life to saving lives of his fellow citizens, first from HIV/AIDS and now from COVID-19, is being threatened even as he tries, yet again, to keep us alive.

And if that wasn’t disgusting and frightening enough itself, there’s the two people in a Marshall, Minn., Walmart late last month who wore face masks with a Nazi swastika on them. It was the first day of Minnesota’s mask regulations that mandated face coverings be worn in businesses and indoor public spaces. Also, Walmart, like many other major retailers, has made masks mandatory.

How did they respond to what is a commonsense approach to saving lives: They invoked the symbol of hate under which more than 11 million, including six million Jews, were exterminated. Bystanders quickly, and rightly, condemned their actions. During the now-viral video of that encounter, the woman wearing the swastika said it was to symbolize what would happen to the U.S. if Joe Biden is elected president. It was, to them, a political statement. To anyone with any moral character, it was an affront to our nation and the lives lost during World War II to ensure that that symbol would not fly over the world.

That is what civil discourse, concern for others and our nation has degenerated into.

Those of us old enough to have lived through the Vietnam War and its impact on our country remember well the phrase: “America, love it or leave it.” The nation was divided as to the legitimacy and necessity of the war. It was a troubled time with sometimes violent confrontations in the streets. I don’t remember, however, violent rhetoric against individuals on the periphery of the issue.

Even as the internet provides for instant communication around the world, it simultaneously separates us from each other. We no longer have to see people in-person when we can see them via a video app. We can now find a niche for ourselves in websites that mirror who we are or who we want to be.

It also provides a level of anonymity that fosters behavior that once was considered unacceptable, such as the death threats to Dr. Fauci and his family.

 

It’s time to take a step back, rethink what we want our world and our lives to be, and work toward those goals. If we don’t, we’re no better than the swastika-wearing shoppers.

(Note: I had the privilege to meet and spend time with Dr. Fauci when I was at Shippensburg University. The University selected him for an honorary degree in 1999. As chair of the Commencement Committee, I hosted him during his visit. He was a consummate professional who was very unassuming and was humble in his acceptance of the degree.)