30 January · Episode 192
Strategic Presidential Communication in Higher Education
42 Min · By Dr. Drumm McNaughton
This episode addresses the required strategic presidential communication training, planning, practice, and consequences for presidents and boards.
The role of higher education presidents today involves more than the traditional leader of an institution; it requires strategic presidential communication skills and adeptness in addressing a wide range of social and political issues.
Higher education leaders are often called upon to make public statements on various matters and must use discernment to decide when to speak and what focus their messages should have. They must have the ability to make statements that address the interests and needs of their stakeholders and not bow to the pressure to respond to politically charged no-win situations. To do this takes training and practice, and in some cases, an entire team.
In this episode of the Changing Higher Ed podcast, Drumm McNaughton welcomes Erin Hennessy, the EVP of TVP Communications. Erin, an expert in strategic and crisis communications in higher education, provides deep insights into the evolving complexities of presidential communications. She discusses the potential pitfalls of recent hearings in Washington, D.C., and the critical preparations necessary for presidents and boards to effectively navigate and communicate in diverse and challenging situations.
Challenges of Trust and Politicization in Higher Education
McNaughton and Hennessy discuss the diminishing trust in educational institutions and the perceived value of higher education as referenced by the results of The Edelman 2024 Trust Barometer and Gallup’s poll showing historically low faith in U.S. Institutions continues.
This issue, accentuated by societal and global shifts, underpins the need for extensive training for effective presidential communication and board preparedness in this highly charged and volatile landscape.
The analysis of the D.C. hearings highlights the challenges and complexities faced by presidents during high-pressure public situations. The hearings illustrated the need for presidents to be thoroughly prepared, anticipating potential traps and politically charged questions. It put a spotlight on the importance of not only legal and government relations guidance but also the involvement of skilled communicators in the preparation process.
The ability to maintain focus on the core values of higher education while navigating politically charged land mines takes extensive training and preparation. This incident serves as a reminder for leaders to be equipped with strategies to handle such scenarios.
Presidential Preparedness for Communication
The readiness of university presidents for high-stakes communication must be a high priority, especially for new presidents. Navigating political statements and communication carries increasing weight for students, the public, and the institution.
As educational institutions become more entangled in political discourse, leaders must be adept at recognizing this trend and its implications. It’s essential for these institutions to strategically respond to political pressures, ensuring that their actions and communications align with their foundational values and mission. This requires a delicate balance between addressing contemporary political issues and maintaining the core principles that define the institution’s identity and purpose. The goal is to navigate these complexities without compromising the institution’s integrity or its commitment to education, research, and community engagement.
The effective use of presidential voice involves a nuanced approach to public communication. It requires presidents to judiciously decide when to speak out, ensuring their statements enhance institutional integrity. Each message should be thoughtfully crafted to mirror the institution’s mission and values, reinforcing its identity and ethos. This strategic approach to communication not only guides institutional messaging but also strengthens the institution’s position and reputation in the broader educational landscape.
Enhancing Leadership Communication Skills
Enhancing leadership communication skills in higher education leaders involves cultivating advanced media relations and public speaking abilities. It’s about more than just delivering information; it’s about engaging audiences, conveying complex ideas clearly, and inspiring action.
Preparing for high-stakes situations, like congressional hearings, requires comprehensive strategies. This includes understanding the nuances of these environments, anticipating questions, and formulating responses that align with institutional goals. Such preparation not only aids in effectively navigating challenging scenarios but also strengthens the leader’s capacity to represent their institution confidently and competently.
Crisis Management and Response Training and Planning
In the realm of crisis management and response within higher education, presidents and boards need to have well-defined communication protocols specifically designed for crises. These protocols serve as a roadmap for a timely and coordinated response, ensuring that the institution’s messaging remains consistent, accurate, and appropriate under pressure.
Training plays a vital role in this context, equipping leaders and communication teams with the skills to quickly adapt to evolving situations while maintaining a focus on delivering messages that align with the institution’s principles and address the concerns of all stakeholders involved.
In strategic communication planning, the focus is on assembling a proficient communication team and establishing a robust infrastructure. This team is instrumental in crafting and executing communication strategies that align with institutional goals. Additionally, there is a significant emphasis on the ongoing training and development of leaders in communication skills. This investment ensures that leaders are equipped with the latest techniques and insights, enabling them to effectively convey the institution’s message and engage with its various stakeholders.
Engaging with diverse stakeholders involves a deep understanding of the unique needs and concerns of different campus and external groups. This understanding is key to crafting messages that resonate across various communities. Presidents must leverage a broad spectrum of communication channels, each tailored to effectively connect with these distinct audiences. This approach ensures that communication is inclusive, reaching and engaging all stakeholders in a manner that is most relevant to their specific contexts and preferences.
Preparation for Making Statements and Communicating in Multiple Situations
Preparation for making statements and communicating in diverse situations involves a dynamic and thoughtful process and practice. It starts with continuously updating and rehearsing crisis communication plans to ensure readiness for various scenarios and the ability to address them head-on. Proactively addressing potential issues demonstrates foresight and leadership that can help to regain trust in higher ed institutions.
Collaboration with legal, public relations, and other experts is key in formulating well-informed strategic statements. This comprehensive approach ensures preparedness for a wide range of communication needs.
Three Key Takeaways for Higher Education Presidents and Boards
- Invest in Communication Skills: Recognize the value of communication in leadership roles and invest in developing these skills for effective engagement with diverse stakeholders.
- Balance Statements with Action: Understand the implications of public statements and prioritize actionable support for the university community in response to societal and political issues.
- Align Changes with Institutional Mission: Ensure that any proposed changes or strategies are in harmony with the institution’s core mission and values, fostering sustainable and positive transformation.
This episode underlines the necessity for higher education leaders to master the art of communication, particularly in an era marked by political and social complexities. The insights shared provide valuable guidance for presidents and boards to effectively navigate the challenges of their roles, emphasizing the importance of adaptability, strategic thinking, and a deep commitment to the institutional mission.
About Our Podcast Guest
Erin, at TVP Communications, leverages her higher education expertise, policy knowledge, and understanding of leadership styles to develop internal communication plans and offer strategic counsel to senior leaders. She leads the agency’s crisis communications and trains professionals in campus roles.
Before TVP Comms in 2014, Erin worked at the American Council on Education, enhancing its media presence and supporting member institutions. Her higher education journey began at Drew University, where she was deputy chief of staff to Presidents Kean and Weisbuch, handling various responsibilities, including crisis response.
Erin’s background also includes roles as press secretary for U.S. Representative Frelinghuysen and in New Jersey Gov. Whitman’s administration. A New Jersey native, she lived in Washington, D.C., for 15 years, earning a master’s in communication from American University, and returned to New Jersey in 2021.
About the Host
Dr. Drumm McNaughton, the host of Changing Higher Ed®, is a consultant to higher education institutions in governance, accreditation, strategy and change, and mergers.
Transcript: Changing Higher Ed Podcast 192 with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Erin Hennessy
[00:31:05] Drumm McNaughton: Thank you, David. Our guest today is Erin Hennessy, Executive Vice President for TVP Communications, a strategic communication firm that focuses on higher education.
Erin has had a long and distinguished career in higher ed. She started as an admissions officer at her alma mater, Drew University. He has been at the American Council of Education, Deputy Chief of Staff for two presidents at Drew, and on the Hill as Press Secretary for U. S. Representative Rodney Fragenhuysen, and five years in the administration of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
In short, Erin’s an expert in strategic and crisis communications, and she joins us today to talk about presidential communications, the recent hearings in Washington, and what presidents and boards should do to prepare for communicating effectively in multiple situations. Erin, welcome to the program.
[00:31:58] Erin Hennessy: Drum, thank you so much for having me. I’m excited for our conversation.
[00:32:02] Drumm McNaughton: Likewise. We’ve been kind of dancing around this for a little while, especially when the, whole debacle with the Hamas, Israeli conflict came out. Wanted to initially talk about emergency communications and things like that. But I think we’re going to have a much broader conversation than that today.
[00:32:23] Erin Hennessy: I agree as I, as I have said to many folks, I think, the reason that this house hearing and institutional reactions to the conflict in Israel and Gaza has captured so much of higher education’s mind share, in the last couple of weeks, is because it’s really representative of a lot of the forces swirling around our industry right now. And, I think it’s definitely, an issue that’s going to continue, to take up a lot of mindshare through the spring semester, and, and I think we’ll have reverberations as we go through next academic year as well.
[00:32:55] Drumm McNaughton: And especially with the election being this year,
[00:32:58] Erin Hennessy: Yes, that’s, that’s true.
[00:33:03] Drumm McNaughton: yeah, yeah,
[00:33:04] Erin Hennessy: I was trying to come up with something eloquent to say, but, all I’ve got the morning after the New Hampshire primaries is yes, I believe there will be an election this year.
[00:33:11] Drumm McNaughton: Yes, yeah, I believe, I like that, that’s good. I’ll have to remember that one. So before we kick into the conversation, give us a little bit about your background. I mean, you’ve had an amazing background and you’re really well positioned with that to be speaking on this topic.
[00:33:30] Erin Hennessy: Oh, thank you. it’s, it’s been a lot of fun. None of it was planned, but it’s been a lot of fun. I have spent the last 10 years working for a company called TVP Communications. We are, an agency that works in communications, both proactive and reactive. And, we work exclusively in higher education. So our clients are colleges, universities, associations, foundations, affiliated businesses. And really what we try and help our clients do is see around corners, think about leadership and communications. Help tell their good news stories, get their faculty expertise out in the world, but also really work with them to identify and then potentially mitigate reputational and crisis issues that come around, seems more and more often.
I previously served at the American Council on Education. I helped oversee the public affairs work and worked very closely with the government relations team there. I started my career all the way back, when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth, as an admissions officer at my alma mater. Worked for two presidents there as the deputy chief of staff, did brief stints in federal government and state government, but higher ed’s, my love higher ed is the industry that I am really invested in because it changed my life and it’s work I really love doing.
[00:34:48] Drumm McNaughton: Well, that’s great.
[00:34:49] Erin Hennessy: I worked on Capitol Hill for about 18 months, which was about all I could take. Came out of it with some really great skill sets, my best friend in the world, and an understanding of why people go and work on the Hill when they are very young and when they are real true believers. I did it at 33 and, I think I was a little past my prime for the Hill experience, but it got me to D. C. As I said, introduced me to my best friend and positioned me really well to support the federal relations team at A. C. E.U., which is where I moved after my time in the House of Reps.
[00:35:21] Drumm McNaughton: Wow. Very nice. So you’ve got a lot of experience. I mean, you started your career, you know, looking at you probably when you were about 10 or so.
[00:35:31] Erin Hennessy: Ah, go on. Go on,
[00:35:34] Drumm McNaughton: And so what’s going on in higher ed communications right now? Why is there all this angst?
[00:35:42] Erin Hennessy: Oh, how much tape do we have for this conversation? That’s, that’s a really big question, and there’s, I think, a lot of answers, so I’ll just prattle on and you stop me when you’ve, you’ve heard enough. But I think it’s a combination of forces that we have seen coming for years, and we have been in the midst of for years, but now they’re sort of all coalescing.
[00:36:04] I think, where I would start is sort of at the widest end of the funnel. I think there is, in American society but also to some extent globally, a real lack of trust in institutions. I think people are, you inclined to see institutions, particularly those around education, healthcare, government, no longer as public goods, but as organizations and institutions that are sort of working against them in some ways.
[00:36:35] We’ve all seen the polling and we’ve talked about it ad nauseum, that the American public in particular doesn’t trust the value of higher education. I feel like we’ve been having this conversation as long as I’ve been in higher ed, but there is a real lack of trust in the value of what we do on our campuses and the value of how we educate our students, even in the value of the research that’s being performed in our labs.
[00:36:57] There is a yearly, I don’t want to call it a poll, a yearly survey that’s done by Edelman called the Trust Barometer, and it’s a fascinating publication to look at. You can find it on Edelman’s website. And this past year I believe was the first year that more than half of the people surveyed, so something around six in 10, said that they come into relationship with “small i” institutions, whether it’s government, military, business, education, what have you. They come into relationship with those institutions.
[00:37:33] So it’s not even that we’re working to earn trust from a neutral position where I don’t know how I feel about you. I distrust you. And we now need to move that needle up to the neutral and then over to positive.
[00:37:45] Drumm McNaughton: Well, it’s interesting you bring up the Adelman survey. Because gallop just came out with a poll recently talking about the same kind of trust. The least, and this one unfortunately didn’t surprise me, used car salesmen have always been at the bottom, yeah, congress is at the bottom now. Okay.
[00:38:06] Erin Hennessy: Are they down to single digits? They were hovering around 11 for a
[00:38:09] Drumm McNaughton: that, that’s pretty much where they are. If I didn’t actually see the poll, but the big thing was education and trusting education, It was not as good as it was, but the, the shift between Republicans and Democrats was phenomenal, unbelievable Democrats over 80 percent. Republicans trusting higher ed twenties?
[00:38:36] Erin Hennessy: Yeah. And I don’t think it’s just higher ed. Also, as we see conversations about book banning and who is in charge of what is taught in our K 12 classrooms. I think it’s, it’s all of us, but I think higher ed is certainly leading the charge there, and I will channel one of my former bosses and say, “compared to Congress, we’re still in great shape”, but higher ed used to be sort of a gold standard kind of brand, for lack of a better word, and we have been tumbling, particularly on the Republican side of this polling for many years, and it is concerning.
[00:39:12] Drumm McNaughton: Well, it’s interesting because when you listen to NPR, I listen to NPR quite a bit, and when I listen to them, when they bring on an expert, it is almost always somebody from higher ed, a professor emeritus, or a professor, someone who’s done good research in this area. So it, it’s, it’s strange to me that there is this schism, but there certainly is.
[00:39:37] Erin Hennessy: Yeah. And, and, you know, it’s, it’s interesting. You always think about, at least I always think about, the conversation around I hate Congress, but my Congress person is okay, and I think if you dug into this polling and, and there’s a lot of money being made on polls about higher education right now, but if you dug into this polling a little bit more, I’d be really interested to look at the cross tabs and see of the respondents who are Republicans who have a significant distrust of higher education or think higher education and colleges and universities are bad for society.
There have been polls around that question. How many of them are college educated and how many of them, have aspirations for their Children to go to college? And I don’t mean just four year residential. Have you engaged with your local community college? Have you engaged with a program that’s provided you a technical certificate? Have you had training in a particular trade? And I’d be really interested just to see if there is sort of a reflection of this, “I hate Congress, but my guy’s okay”, kind of approach.
[00:40:41] Drumm McNaughton: That makes perfect sense. I think what we’re seeing though, is more symptoms than the actual problem. You know, the, the problem is, as a culture the trust has gone downhill. I think it started with, you know, a lot of it with the Vietnam war and it just magnified, and then we had, you know, I’m going to get in trouble with my listeners on this one, at least the Republican ones, you’ve got the, you know, number 45, president Trump. Who according to the Washington Post during a time in office he said over 30, 000 lies and so it’s obvious we don’t trust as a culture and then we have the. Politicize it. I can
[00:41:27] Erin Hennessy: I know it’s hard to say. It’s hard to say.
[00:41:29] Drumm McNaughton: the politicalization is the best way I can say it of
[00:41:33] Erin Hennessy: There we
[00:41:33] Drumm McNaughton: higher ed,
[00:41:34] Erin Hennessy: Yeah. And, you know, I, I agree that that higher ed is being politicized and we’re a great straw man for a lot of conversations that are happening in the political arena and in broader society. I think the mistake that we’re making in this conversation, as an industry is assuming that this is new, higher education has always been politicized. Higher education, has always been representative of different things. And that’ll shift here and there. But, you know, I had the opportunity at Vanderbilt to sit in a room with John Meacham and listen to him talk. And the one concept, one of the concepts he raised really stuck with me. He talked about the narcissism of the present.
It was early in the Trump administration. It was related to people bemoaning the division in our society and saying that this is the worst that it, it had ever been. And he sort of. Pointed at the Civil War, and and made the point that that, of course, it feels, worse to us because we are in it, and this is our present. And this is very overwhelming. So it it’s sort of mirrored in the higher education conversation as well. We’ve been politicized, for ages.
Every funding decision made in every state for every public institution involves politics. And so keeping in mind that, that, yes, it feels particularly intense right now, but it is not particularly new and there may be lessons that we can learn and looking back at previous uses of, of higher education as a symbol and as a, representative of larger forces in political conversations.
[00:43:09] Drumm McNaughton: Hold that thought because we’re going to come back to some of the things that we could be doing at this point. The house hearing.
[00:43:17] Erin Hennessy: Yeah.
[00:43:18] Drumm McNaughton: That was a real challenging time for, for those three ladies that were there. We hear thesnippets that come out of that, but as we were talking about the other day, these are 30 second sound bites out of a five hour hearing,
[00:43:35] Erin Hennessy: Yeah, and I have so many thoughts about that hearing. And I think, it, it really is sort of looming large and all of our imaginations and psyches. That was a five and a half hour hearing, and I think those of us who live in higher education, assume that conversations are about providing context and information and fact and nuance and a house hearing is 180 degrees the opposite direction. It is about, any more or lately again, could be the narcissism of the present, but it’s about politics. It’s about creating those sound bites that can be pushed out on social media that can be used for fundraising. And this is on both sides of the aisle. In this case, it happened to be Republican members, Elise Stefanik from New York, who really laid some traps that several of the presidents fell right into.
[00:44:29] I think the only surprise for me is that people were surprised that that happened. If it hadn’t been that question, it would have been another member. It would have been another question. The goal there was to put these presidents in a position where they couldn’t possibly win. That said, I would have been really interested to be a fly on the wall for the prep session. I am guessing there were a lot of attorneys present, government relations folks present, and that is good, and that is right, but I am hopeful that there were communicators in the room as well. The question for me when I see something go sideways is always, was the advice not good, or was the advice not received? And I don’t know if there were communicators in that room who were offering advice to remember the humanity at the center of what we do as an industry, to remember that this is all about people, or if the presidents were so nervous or so tired after multiple hours of questioning that they forgot to bring it back to this core value of higher education, or if the advice just wasn’t offered, if communicators were drowned out because this felt very high stakes and very different from just prepping for an interview with the Boston Globe or the Washington Post or NBC Nightly News. I’m not sure what happened.
[00:45:47] I’m, I’m sure that all three of those presidents would like to go back and, and have a do over. It, it was, I think, a, a sort of signal moment in this broader conversation about all of these other issues, whether it’s the trust and value of higher education, whether it’s the politicization of higher education, whether it’s questions about women in leadership.
[00:46:09] I do not believe that it was a coincidence that the presidents who were invited and accepted were all women. Again, I don’t know what the witness invitation list looked like, but I’m guessing it was mostly women, and women make up a large portion of the, or did at that time, make up a large portion of the presidents of the Ivy League.
[00:46:27] So I, I think there’s a lot going on there. I think it was a signal moment, and, I think we need to look at the larger question, of what this all means. It’s not just a communications issue as a, communicator, every communicator listening to this knows that when something goes sideways, the inclination is to blame communications first, to say it’s a communications problem, when often it is a leadership problem, or an industry wide problem. So, I don’t think this was just about communications and prep. This is about some bigger questions.
[00:47:04] Drumm McNaughton: Which brings us really to the heart of our conversation. Are presidents ready to be communicators when they step onto the big stage, they get to sit in a big chair?
[00:47:17] Erin Hennessy: That’s a great question. I would say that some of them are. Yes. And I would say that some of them aren’t. And those are the ones I really like, who realize they need work and development, and we’ve worked with a number of presidents who have said, ” I know I need work here.” Either I know I need to work on my tact a little bit more, or I need to understand the weight that the words from the president carry, or I need to work on my media relations skills. I like the ones who say, “I’m not fully confident”, or “I know I could be better and I want to work on it”. But you know, I think it, it really depends on who the president is and where they come from and, I would argue, and, and folks, who run leadership development programs have heard me argue many, many times, that a set of communication skills are reallysomething that can distinguish candidates in a candidate pool, whether it’s for president, provost, senior leadership positions, and that our leadership development programs need to really be thinking not about a session on crisis communication or a session on media relations. These folks need day long, two day long communications boot camps because it is hard, it is not something you can master in an hour. It is constantly changing in terms of what communications means, what the tools are that we have at our fingertips. You know, I could do 3 hours on on statements and when and how and why and why not.
[00:48:50] So I really do think that the, the folks who are coming up through the administrative ranks, or the faculty ranks with their eye on a presidency, need to develop those skills early and need to take a real hard look at where their strengths and their opportunities for growth are in their communications toolkit.
[00:49:10] Drumm McNaughton: when one takes a look at the progression from faculty member up to university president, it’s not really about leadership it’s more about building consensus which is part of leadership but it and it’s like when i first took over as the the chair and the ceo of the professional association and standards bodies for management consultants back fifteen years ago, i had a friend of mine who who dealt with the media and said, Drumm we need to have a conversation about the power of the chair. Like okay, Jim.
[00:49:46] He says, when you say something, understand people take that as gospel. You have a chance to influence or make significantly worse. So use your words, even your expression in your face makes a difference when someone says something. So you need to understand that and prepare yourself. And I had somebody who had worked very high levels of media, television reporter, television anchor, et cetera, coaching me on things and, and I made a lot of mistakes.
For folks ascending into the presidency, especially those who come up through the academic ranks, you’re not used to talking like this. You’re used to, you know, let’s pull it, let’s not, you know, go out there on the ledge too far instead of, as a university president, sometimes you need to slam your fist down on the table and say, “Folks, this is the way it’s got to be.”
[00:50:48] Erin Hennessy: Yes. Preferably not while your communications consultant is in the room and on the receiving end of that, that fist slamming. But yes, you’re absolutely right. You know, folks come up and they are used to building consensus. They are also used to digging into all the nuances, and there can be a real shift when you reach the presidency in understanding the limits and the opportunities tied to the presidential voice.
[00:51:12] And where that presidential voice is absolutely required and necessary and where we need to think about preserving it, either because, you know, once you start being responsible for everything, you’re responsible for everything. And that can really get in the way. I worked with a president who came in after a very rocky period for an institution. One of the big complaints about the, the outgoing president was that they didn’t communicate well. And so this president, started doing a weekly email to faculty and staff. And at first it was great. It absolutely helped rebuild trust, helped people feel like they were being heard, like they had access to the chief executive. But after a while, it became difficult to feed the beast.
And we also dealt with people feeling it was important for their thing to be mentioned in the weekly presidential email. And so very quickly, we went from a really important tool that had really, really positive outcomes for the institution in this relationship to something that was much more like a church bulletin, where we were telling people about the potluck and about the, you know, weekly Bible study. And it definitely started to diminish that presidential voice. So we had to pull back and sort of brief rejigger and figure out how we were going to continue to maximize the benefits of this connection to the chief executive, while taking all of these other items that were very, very important to a number of constituencies, but putting them in the appropriate place and the appropriate communications channel, and, and how we were going to navigate that.
[00:53:00] It’s the same thing with statements and, and, you know, the conflict between Israel and Hamas was a very extreme example, but we saw it with the travel ban. We see it with, you know, mass shootings. We see it with election outcomes. We see it all the time where people are anxious, they are hurt, they are scared and feel that it is very important as part of their connection to the culture of the place to see their concerns reflected from leadership. And I don’t disagree that that’s very important, but I do think there are ways to, again, navigate what our students and our faculty and our staff need that don’t always require the president putting out a statement. Once you put out a statement on a particular issue you then need to put out a statement on every issue, and it gets to the point where I don’t know how you have time to do the “presidenting” while you’re also doing all the statement thing.
[00:54:00] So we try and think about what are our students actually saying when they say we want a statement from the president on this and how can we make that more real? When the conflict between Russia and Ukraine broke out, what we encouraged folks to do was let’s put the statement aside for right now.
[00:54:19] What do we know about our students? Do you have Ukrainian students on campus? Do you have Russian students on campus? What are they feeling? What do they need? Are they concerned about getting home for holidays for the summer? Are they concerned about being able to continue to pay for their education? How do we take care of them?
[00:54:37] And we’ll worry about the statement later. Because what they’re saying is, I want to be heard. I need to be supported. I am nervous. I am anxious. I don’t know how this impacts me and the people I love. Let’s address that and then we’ll worry about a statement.
[00:54:50] Drumm McNaughton: That makes so much sense because as soon as you make that statement, you’ve taken a position and as a university president, that’s not your job to do that. In certain cases, you know, you have a shooting at your campus or something like that. It’s like, a tough statement needs to be made. We don’t tolerate this kind of violence here. The perpetrators will be dealt with by the criminal justice system, whatever. But to take a statement on something that is, you know, clearly political, that’s not your job. Your job is to take care of your students, your faculty, your staff.
[00:55:26] Erin Hennessy: Certainly. And when something happens that does, you know, that’s always our first sort of filter when we look at at whether or not a statement needs to be issued is, does this directly impact your institution, your students, your ability to serve your mission. So, for example, when Former President Trump issued the travel ban. I think that was a completely appropriate time for a lot of university presidents to issue statements because they had scholars whose research and education was now suddenly put into limbo. They had students who were expecting to arrive on campuses here in the U. S. and pursue their degrees, and this was going to make that at least more difficult and at worst impossible.
[00:56:07] And so that’s something that directly relates to who we are and what we do. and so in that case, I can see making a statement, but again, I would want that statement to be more about, here’s how we’re supporting our people. Here’s how this is impacting our people, rather than just sort of the big ephemeral, this is bad and here’s why.
[00:56:28] Let’s talk about how it’s impacting our folks and how we’re working to mitigate that. Because that’s really what I care about, right? As a member of an institutional community, how are you taking care of us?
[00:56:39] Drumm McNaughton: Mm hmm. You know, it was interesting. There was an essay in the Chronicle not too long ago. The title was, You Could Not Pay Me Enough to be a University President.
[00:56:49] Erin Hennessy: Amen.
[00:56:50] Drumm McNaughton: And the subtitle was, “So why are these such horrible jobs? Because the primary task of any Dean or president is to deal with the most spoiled pigheaded interest groups imaginable.”
[00:57:02] Erin Hennessy: Well, that’s where they lose me on the subhead.
[00:57:05] Drumm McNaughton: Yeah, I, I, I agree. At the same time though, there are folks out there, to me, I think many presidents, like we said before, they’re really not prepared to step into the job from a communications perspective. They don’t understand the differences between leadership and building consensus, and frankly, it’s not the same job that it was five years ago.
[00:57:35] Mm hmm.
[00:57:37] Erin Hennessy: 100%. It’s not the same job it was three years ago. You know, who, who, who went through their, career and said, “you know, what I really want to do is be president during a global pandemic and figure out how I’m going to get tests and masks and a lot of plexiglass, how I’m going to get researchers back in the lab, how I’m going to bring a workforce to campus when they have no school for their children.”
[00:58:02] Nobody! Nobody wanted to do that. Nobody signed up and said, when I grow up, I want to manage a global pandemic on behalf of an enormous organization. it used to be that we would say, God, why would you want to do this job? It’s just all about fundraising. At this point, I have to imagine fundraising feels like a vacation for presidents considering what else is on their desk and on their call sheet and in their inbox.
[00:58:26] I don’t know how these people sleep. I really don’t. When you think about, you know, enrollment, when you think about finances, when you think about workforce, when you think about questions about value, when you think about which member of Congress is going to be gunning for you in the morning because you allowed “fill in the blank” speaker to come to your campus.
[00:58:45] When you think about just even the silly stuff. Are your students making deep fake videos of you saying something awful and pushing them out on Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, whatever. I mean, it’s just, man, oh, man, and good luck, like, balancing all of that with having a family life, walking your dog, getting exercise. I mean, I just I’ve never wanted to be a president. I’ve always been the guy who wants to be behind the guy. I am a born staffer and a and a born sort of senior counselor. But even more now, the job is really starting to feel undoable it in a lot of ways. And that breaks my heart because they’re, they’re such necessary jobs. They’re such necessary institutions. Yes, they have flaws. Yes, they have problems. Yes, we need to make a lot of changes. But man, oh, man, like, what’s the alternative? You know?
[00:59:41] Drumm McNaughton: You’re absolutely right. When I look at it, it’s like biggest skill set that a president needs is to be a change agent to be
[00:59:52] Erin Hennessy: Yeah. And good luck with that.
[00:59:54] Drumm McNaughton: Oh, yeah. You know what? You’ve got,
[00:59:55] Erin Hennessy: You know?
[00:59:56] Drumm McNaughton: You’ve got your own constituencies, let alone the outside constituencies, trying to come up against you.
[01:00:03] Erin Hennessy: Yeah. I mean, we see this increase in the numbers of votes of no confidence in presidents and provosts and boards. We see student protests, student’s petitions, social media outrage. It’s, it’s very hard to make changes. And it’s, you know, again, it comes back to communications. There are presidents who understand, and boards, we need to talk more about boards in these conversations, because that’s where the buck starts and stops in a lot of ways. There needs to be an understanding that these changes cannot be implemented, you know, conceived of, tested and implemented, in a semester, in a year, these financial problems are a long time coming.
[01:00:47] The need to relook at program mix, that’s been a long time coming. And the president who should have started the conversation about those changes is probably two presidents ago and is probably now living a life in Asheville, North Carolina or Naples, Florida, and I hope they’re having a great time.
[01:01:04] But we really need to think on a longer horizon about these change processes. You cannot hire a person, put them in the job and 2 years later, or 3 years later, start a renegotiation process or or start considering whether you’re going to renegotiate a contract and keep this person based on what kind of changes they’ve been able to implement.
[01:01:26] If you want them to be truly, uh,Not consensus, because consensus is hard and long, but a process in which people feel like they have at least had the opportunity to consider to be heard to provide input. There needs to be buy in. And you can’t do that in two years or three years if two presidents ago, we weren’t already having hard conversations about who we are, what we do, who’s interested in what we do, and who’s willing to pay what for it.
[01:01:58] Drumm McNaughton: And to me, a lot of that falls on the board, the board, examining the mission. Is it still viable? What do we need to do? What are the outcomes that I’m going to hold Ms. Mr. President accountable for how do you folks work with boards along these lines?
[01:02:19] Erin Hennessy: Unfortunately, we too often come in after things have gone a little sideways, and are trying to, you know, in, in all of our work, we’re never engaged to save the president’s job, to save the board chair’s job. We are engaged and we approach our work as, being for the good of the institution long term. So that is always our primary focus. And we try and keep the board and the president focused on that same goal. But talking with the board, a lot of it is helping them understand higher education. I think people who serve on boards have a great faith in and trust in and support for higher education, but they don’t always understand those smaller nuances about how long change can take and how faculty governance shared governance really work. And those are some of the challenges that, particularly folks who come from the corporate world, you know, ” My business doesn’t run this way. I would never run my business this way.” Well, sure. But that’s why you do that, we do this and that’s great. But talking with the board, and I know a lot of search folks do this really well also, and I think some do it slightly less well. What is the institution? What is the mission? What do you do? Who do you serve? I think there are a lot of boards who, out of the goodness of their heart, are ambitious for their institution, which is great. You should be. You’re not there to just sort of watch things stay the same, but I worry about boards that are ambitious for their institution in a way that is going to change the very cellular makeup of that place. And I think we have seen folks come in and go to hire presidents who aren’t the right president for the institution as it is today, but is they’re the right president for what the board hopes the institution will be in a couple of years, which often includes being higher up the U. S. News and World Report ranking or gunning for that R1 status or becoming an AAU institution, which are really hard things to do. And they’re really hard things to do over the tenure of just one president. And I think there are some institutions that have lost their way in trying to become something different. I’m based just outside of Philadelphia.
I look at Temple University in my backyard, which was created as an institution to serve working professionals, working class folks, first generation, and has really sort of stepped away from that DNA that is at the core of of Temple’s history and tried to be a lot of different things and compete with a lot of different institutions within the city of Philadelphia and has made some leadership decisions that have not worked out well. And I think some of those choices are a symptom of Temple trying to become something that it isn’t. And in this day and age, when we talk about declining enrollment and really needing to find your niche and understand, you know, who you are and offer programs that really speak to your audience, we sort of forget that being who we are and really leaning into that is a differentiator. Temple doesn’t need to be like Penn. Temple doesn’t need to be like Villanova. Temple doesn’t need to be like St. Joe’s.
Temple needs to be Temple. And there is a real important mission and differentiator there if it leans into historically, what that institution has been, while continuing to innovate and advance how they achieve that mission. I just realized this has turned into my rant about, you know, what, what I need in the future of higher education and, and all of my, my particular complaints.
[01:05:52] And so I hope there’s value in this, but,
[01:05:55] Drumm McNaughton: Absolutely. I, You know, me well enough to know that if, if there’s not value, I’m going to cut you off
[01:06:02] Erin Hennessy: I hope it comes across that. I, I love higher ed. I love the work that institutions do. And, and I have such hopes that we will continue to make real, you know, real changes in people’s lives. And I’m usually the cynic, not the Pollyanna, but, I really do believe in the power of higher ed and, and I want only good things for this industry.
[01:06:21] Drumm McNaughton: Well, and that brings me to the last point I wanted to make, is earlier in the conversation, I made the comment, you know, based on an essay, “you could not pay me enough to be a university president”. The reason people do this is they believe in the, yeah, there’s, they believe in the institution. Yes. Is there
[01:06:42] Erin Hennessy: A lot of them.
[01:06:43] Drumm McNaughton: is there hubris there?
[01:06:44] Is there, you know, I need to validate my ego, et cetera. Yeah, of course there is, there always is, but by and large, the reason people aspire to sit in the big chair is a value that higher education is important to students. It’s important to society. It’s important to our nation and the world. And if you don’t have this altruistic, at least a little bit of this altruistic belief in you, to me you don’t have any business being in the job.
[01:07:18] Erin Hennessy: Oh, I agree with you entirely. And I I’m always flummoxed, unfortunately, it doesn’t happen that often, but I’m flummoxed by people who come in from outside of higher education, who take a presidential position and really seem to just dislike higher ed. Dislike, the people who work in higher ed. I worked for a non traditional president for a number of years. The man loved higher education, saw real value in it, invested in it, when he was in public office, but there are some folks who come in and, and think they’re going to fix us and, and have a real,lack of respect for the work and the mission and the way things get done on a campus. And I’m not saying like, everything’s perfect and nothing should be changed, and how dare you? We need non traditional folks who can help us look at the way we do things and, and help us think about if there are better ways to do it, but the folks who come in and, and really seem to see us as broken, and their role as fixing us,they break my heart and, and they don’t always leave great legacies at the institutions they serve.
[01:08:25] Drumm McNaughton: And people need to remember that culture change is the absolute most difficult change project you have, and it works only about five or ten percent of the time.
[01:08:39] Erin Hennessy: Yeah, yeah. And, and I think they need to remember as well, these aren’t widget factories. These are people organizations. And the only way that you can get people to buy in and come along with you is by engaging with people. You cannot email yourself into and through a successful change process.
[01:09:03] Um,and we’ve seen people try it. there, there are a lot of folks who, we say this all the time, who mistake communications for leadership. I can only communicate what you give me to communicate. I can’t come up with a leadership vision and a plan just through communications. Hard decisions need to be made. And we need to have something to talk about in order to communicate it. And so, we say it all the time, it’s in almost every one of my slide decks, I cannot communicate you out of a leadership void. I can support you. I can give you all the tools in the world to, to help realize it. But, if you’re not out there engaging with the constituencies that matter to that institution and to whom that institution matters, you’re not going to have much luck implementing a change process, particularly around culture.
[01:09:55] Drumm McNaughton: Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner every time. So Erin, this has been a fabulous conversation. Thank you.
[01:10:05] Erin Hennessy: Oh, you’re so kind. Thank you for having me. It’s been a great conversation. I love to get up on my various soap boxes and, and rant about the things that matter and the work that we’re all doing together, so I appreciate your time today, Drumm.
[01:10:16] Drumm McNaughton: My pleasure. Three takeaways for presidents and boards.
[01:10:20] Erin Hennessy: Oh, communications is worth investing in, trust your team and build a strong bench, cause it can’t all be the president’s responsibility and, oh, what’s my third one? Continue to fight the good fight because a higher ed needs it.
[01:10:38] Drumm McNaughton: Thank you. What’s next for you? What’s next for TVP?
[01:10:42] Erin Hennessy: Oh, gosh, we ourselves have ventured into podcasting. So we are into season two of our podcast called Trusted Voices, which is hosted by myself and my boss, Teressa Valerio Parrott. Available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded, but we’ll just continue to help folks tell the good news, look around corners, see what’s coming next and continue to communicate about the life changing nature of higher ed.
[01:11:06] Drumm McNaughton: Very good. Erin, thank you so much. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. I look forward to the next time.
[01:11:13] Erin Hennessy: Thanks Drumm, I do too.
[01:11:16] Drumm McNaughton: Thanks for listening and a special thank you to our guest Erin Hennessy, EVP for TVP Communications and for her sharing with us her thoughts about presidential communications and how presidents need to prepare for the job. Erin, thanks much. I look forward to having you on the show at another time.
[01:11:33] Tune in next week when we welcome Dr. Cynthia Teniente Matson, president of San Jose State University. SJSU is a downtown urban institution located in the heart of Silicon Valley, and she and SJSU have become a model for town gown relationships, a definite way to turn around the negative perceptions of higher education.
[01:11:56] Thanks for listening. See you next week.