Over spring break, I travelled to Boston where I heard from a Principia alumnus that there had been some unforeseen changes to the faculty lineup advising the Pilot. “Strange,” I thought, “I’m sure they would have let me know if that were the case.” Upon returning, I discovered some of my favorite paintings gone from the library. I rapidly identified a theme: the unexplained displacement of things I liked.
While my personal experiences at the college may have been affected in each of these two cases, I cannot really comment on the legitimacy of the executive decisions that led to them. Instead, I would like to use these two changes on campus to talk about something much more important that seems to be missing: communication.
Finding out about a personnel change that directly affects my network of working relationships as a Pilot editor through unofficial channels is not ideal. Events leading to the change in Pilot advisor-ship are deeply complex. Personnel changes happen for a whole host of reasons, and out of respect not only for the legalities of such situations, but for the individuals involved, communication thereabouts is necessarily limited.
Something I learned in a public relations class I took with Craig Savoye several years ago was the benefit of thinking not just about ‘the public’ but of publics, plural. In sensitive situations, one narrows communication to key messages, disseminating these only with key publics. The senior administration did communicate clearly with the faculty as events unfolded. In this case, the faculty was a key public. The Pilot editorial staff, and indeed the broader public of Mass Communications students was not. The way that communication unfolded with these publics is unfortunate. I would much rather hear directly from Principia about changes that will directly affect my experience, than third hand from an alumnus in Boston.
An important aspect of this discussion is precisely this incredible gossip network. Because Principia fosters such a tight community, we do an excellent job of passing messages one to another without consistent fact checking. In this age of accelerated communications, this process can happen at high speed, and over vast distances. I ask myself how many people I told about faculty changes, or the Soulages painting, before doing any fact checking: probably several. In situations such as this, we can all help the flow of clear communication, not through silence, but through careful fact checking before passing information to others.
Principia is a saturated communication environment. We send out phone messages and bulk emails, we post table tents or banners in the concourse, our internal website is a latticework of informational pages, flashy boxes, calendars, and so on. When messages arrive in so many different ways, there is a threshold of significance below which information simply fails to register. The question then becomes one of how to disseminate important messages in ways that rise above that threshold without also raising it. This involves thinking about the correct medium for the message, making sure that it is clearly articulated, and most importantly listening back to the target public to see if it has been heard.
In the case of relatively mundane issues—testing tornado sirens for instance—it is clear that the public relations effort needed is not gargantuan; a mass-distribution email covering the salient details is quite sufficient. On this level, our communications machine is functioning happily. Unfortunately, there is a sustained feeling of dissatisfaction amongst a number of college demographics regarding communication with senior administrators on more complex issues.
When decisions are made that really affect the on-the-ground experience of groups at the college, whether that be the sale of a painting, a change in the very structure of the way we do education at Principia, or a super sensitive personnel issue, it is imperative that we communicate effectively. We must be open, honest, and humble. Furthermore, we must strive to ensure that communication moves clearly in both directions. On top of the key message we are trying to communicate, this means conveying what we have heard, what we would like to hear, and crucially letting our partners in communication know how we are taking their viewpoints into consideration.