By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
A confidential UTS risk assessment paper, leaked to the media, is causing serious angst for staff and stakeholders. The well-meaning but ill-advised efforts of the spokesperson Deputy Vice Chancellor Iain Watt have only fanned the flames and fuelled speculation and uncertainty about the challenges they face.
You can read the article, and Mr Watt’s comments, here – but at the heart of the story is the valid concern about a potential annual $200m revenue hole which threatens the viability of the University.
Worst case, this could end the educational futures of the students and the careers of the staff and suppliers.
While that event is unlikely, the real and present risk is the reputation damage from the speculation caused by the way the story has been reported, so it’s worth ensuring your spokesperson is putting out that fire with the right messages.
Media have special and specific needs which the spokesperson must understand and address. If your messages are weak, waffling, and ambiguous a journalist will keep probing until they get something they can use, and it may not be a comment which works for you.
Far better to deliver a short sharp and strategic insight which is media friendly so they hear it and use it.
UTS' first strategic error was fielding a live (and seemingly untrained) spokesperson in the first place. This story is about the leak of a confidential and commercially sensitive report so a short, emailed response flagging confidentiality and giving a general comment on solid governance through risk assessment was all that was needed.
But if you do need to field a spokesperson, they must use strategic messages and know how to deliver them with empathy and tight control.
Sadly Mr Watt’s quoted comments seem clunky, speculative, and serve to inflame the issue. Kudos to journalist Lisa Visentin for running them in full, but I’ve truncated them as most journalists would:
“We have thought about what we would do if there were no students ever to come from China ever again … we are taking seriously things happening which could potentially constrain the flow [of students].
“We’ve got plans around our international student intake for the next five years, which goes from Chinese student numbers being bigger in 2026 than they are now, to them being a tiny fraction …”
As a journalist, the hook those quotes feed me is that UTS has a potentially serious revenue problem because the percentage of Chinese students could permanently drop to being a tiny fraction of what they are now. Why on earth would he go there?
What should he have said? Well, the word choice is easy, it’s the ideas which matter.
I always start with getting clear on what you need to achieve, and in this case its around closing down the explosive revenue hole story, providing reassurance about the University’s viability and highlighting the good governance practices around risk assessment. The strategy and messaging just writes itself after that.
You can email me here for some tips on how to communicate in a crisis. Or we can take you through our own Risk/Impact assessment process to help you prepare your crisis plan.
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