On April 3, The Hechinger Report published an article titled “The Reckoning Is Here: More than a third of community college students have vanished.” The following morning, I received an email from a stakeholder inquiring about our institution’s numbers and actions. This direct approach provided an opportunity to address concerns, shed light on our unique situation and acknowledge the real issues highlighted in the article that required attention.
Over the next week, as I observed the article being reposted and commented on, it became evident that it had struck a nerve and was receiving significant attention. However, it failed to consider major regional differences and variations among college types, leaving a skewed impression. Furthermore, it couldn’t determine whether this was a short-term fluctuation or a long-term trend.
As a communication professional, I’ve encountered similar situations in the past, and I’ve learned to apply the concept of the circle of concern, influence and control. While this principle is often attributed to Stephen Covey, it aligns with lessons from other organizational thinkers and various religious traditions. The fundamental idea is to allocate your energy primarily to things you can control, some energy to matters you can influence and as little energy as possible to things beyond your control.
Applying this analysis, two possible approaches emerge when a national news story paints your institution with too broad a brush:
One of the reasons I believe that AI is unlikely to replace us all is because there is an art to public relations and marketing. Sometimes the best course of action is to pause and wait for the next news cycle to take over. In the past year, we have witnessed a surge of stories advocating for technical schools and trades as the best options for students. Now, articles are discussing the potential demise of community and technical colleges. Which perspective is accurate? Sometimes it is prudent to sit back and concentrate on the aspects within our control. After all, I have never held a position where I could influence the national media narrative.
Whether responding with an op-ed or discussing the issue in a public meeting, consider using “and” instead of “but.” Engaging in an argument with a national publication, even when we believe they are wrong, is not my intention. A more effective approach would be to state something like, “The article points out X, and this is what we are doing to address it.” Alternatively, we could provide a more specific response, such as, “The article highlights the challenges faced by urban institutions, whereas, as a rural institution, we observe a different landscape.”
This approach has the added benefit of avoiding being on record as recently disagreeing with the publication, which may come in handy when using their content to support our own arguments. The “and” approach can also be effective when engaging with legislators. Presidents, institutions and public relations professionals must choose battles and make clear distinctions on important topics, and avoiding unnecessary conflicts along the way helps highlight the battles that truly matter.
It is important to remember that you are human, and you are going to have an emotional or psychological reaction. Therefore, it may also be helpful to identify your personal pet peeves. Especially now that I work in the community college space, I have learned to guard against immediately reacting to my personal pet peeve: journalists and thinkers drawing conclusions about higher education solely from Ivy League institutions or large state schools with low admission rates. Once, during a focus group, I discovered that students vastly overestimated the cost of community college. Upon further investigation, I realized this was due to the prevailing national narrative at the time, which focused on the rising cost of college, predominantly based on highly selective institutions. In these moments I try to take a longer pause, knowing that responding immediately from that top-of-mind emotion is unlikely to help me achieve my communication goals.
The news cycle moves fast, and communication professionals will always benefit from thinking strategically in the midst of the storms. In some ways, it is the very thing that leaders need from communicators—a cool head to lean on and remind them a narrative is just that. It is a narrative that needs examination.