If a new president is to get off to an effective start, good communication must precede and help drive a presidential transition. The Presidency asked two seasoned campus-communications professionals to compile a top 10 list of communications must-dos for transitioning in a new president: M. Fredric Volkmann, vice chancellor emeritus at Washington University in St. Louis and interim vice president for strategic communications at The Pennsylvania State University, and Lisa M. Powers, Penn State’s chief news and media relations officer and a 23-year public-relations veteran, draw upon both their collective professional experience and their recent work to introduce new Penn State University President Eric J. Barron in sharing the following checklist of best practices.
When your institution is getting ready to name a new president and enter a leadership transition period, there is much more for a campus communications team to think about and plan for than just putting out a press release and holding a news conference.
Communications initiatives are crucial to obtaining lasting buy-in from a broad spectrum of the campus community and outside constituencies and stakeholders, from the media to students to trustees, major donors, parents, alumni, staff, and faculty. And as you will see from the first half of this list of communications imperatives, planning is vital to the communications effort, and should take place at the very outset of the search process.
Top 10 list of Communications Must-dos for Transitioning in a New President
- It is critical that a draft communications-rollout plan for the announcement of a new president is written and reviewed by the search committee, even before the presidential search is underway. Include your search firm, if one is being used.
- A key individual from the campus communications team should have a close relationship in strictest confidence with the search committee chair or its coordinator—not to serve on the committee, but to have the opportunity to help the committee learn what may be coming down the pike when it publicly announces a selection.
- When the committee is down to two or three finalists, use standard news-media investigative techniques to find out what kind of reporting has been done on the candidate over the past 10 or 15 years. These techniques should include a simple Google search, of course, but should also use more complete media databases. In forming a communications announcement plan for your new president, it is important to understand how the media might react to any previously published information about the candidate.
- It is imperative to develop a public presidential search website that lets key stakeholders know the search criteria, how the search will operate, the name of the search firm, what type of individuals are being sought for the position, and as much information as possible about a search, even when it is a confidential process. Explain to media and stakeholders the benefits of a confidential search process (for example, share the fact that confidential searches tend to attract the best candidates.)
- All of the above needs to be discussed and agreed to by members of the search committee before the search process begins. Search committee members should be informed ahead of time that their names will be public and that they will be considered potential sources by the media. Accordingly, they should also be trained how to respond to media inquiries.
- Plan for the interaction between the communications team and the president-elect that occurs in the time frame (hopefully at least a couple of days) between when the selection and the public announcement are made: What are the president-designate’s expectations, and how will they change the draft announcement-rollout plan? It is also important to coordinate with the selectee’s current institution, especially if he or she is a sitting president or provost.
- You will have the press release, social media plan, and a backgrounder on the new president ready to go, but also plan for photo and video opportunities during the rollout days. Be prepared to post and share these quickly. Remember, above all, to stay nimble and be ready to adapt your plan on the fly as the new president makes his or her preferences known. Do a media-training session with the new president to prepare for the news conference and subsequent interviews. Provide questions and answers and background information that will help the new president be ready for challenging questions from the media, as well as from stakeholders such as students, faculty, alumni, parents, and legislators.
- Introduce the new president to the campus community using short videos, your internal e-newspaper, social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, email messages tailored to different constituencies, and appearances at local functions and any remote campuses, keeping in mind where media interactions could occur.
- Prepare a president’s page on your website that will be ready to go on the new president’s start date. But there must also be an understanding within the institution of how to position a new president-designate so as not to diminish the ongoing role of the outgoing president during the transition. It’s easy to focus on the new president’s arrival, but don’t forget to honor your outgoing leader. Allowing someone to just fade away is not a communications strategy.
- Identify events during the first 90 to 120 days of the new president’s tenure at which he or she can speak and be visible in the community. Coordinate with the president’s office on all planned appearances and communications, and invite media coverage when it’s warranted.