Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Community Grief

It's a task no communications professional wants to do: informing their university of the death of a beloved leader. I wish I could say that I didn't have experience working in this situation, but sadly, this week marks the fourth passing of a colleague in six years at my institution. A dean, a chief fundraiser, a library director, and now, the university president who retired two months ago after serving for 21 years in the position.

As hard as it may be, PR offices can play an important role in helping their colleges grieve:
  • Collect and present the images. Cull through your archives and find photographs, news clippings, or videos of the individual through the years. Prepare to make them available to family members and for presentation in an appropriate venue, be it a memorial service, tribute Web site, or alumni magazine article.

  • Go beyond your job description. This is a minor crisis, so be prepared to do anything necessary to help out.

  • Call on your best vendors. You'll probably need your printers to break the rules of time and space to print memorial programs, large mounted photographs, etc., for the upcoming services. Stress the stress of the situation and use only your most reliable vendors.

  • Share the love. Help gather individual memories and stories through a Web site (with comment moderation, just in case) or special notecards available at memorial services or funerals.

  • Consider a silent symbol of appreciation. Following the death of our dean, ribbons and pins were made available across campus to allow students, faculty and staff to wear their appreciation for the late colleague.

  • Support the loved ones. This may seem obvious, but the most important role marketing staff can play is to carefully and efficiently communicate news of the death along with the family's wishes. News travels fast, especially on social media. Getting the word out quickly can preventing the family from getting unwanted calls or messages. Include the "in lieu of flowers" designation in your news release if necessary, and be tactful if the memorial gifts go to your institution (i.e., don't link to your "Make a gift online" page in the online news release).
If your personal grief seems overwhelming, focusing on the work at hand can be therapeutic, if for no other reason than to know that you're doing everything you can for your colleague as a final tribute.

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