Thoughts on “Free for All”


  • There is no “normal” or “business as usual” on campuses right now.
  • This uncertainty and instability could continue for a long time.
  • Expect tactics, dirty tricks, provocation, possible damage and possible injuries.
  • Expect external factors to influence the situation on campus: action of the South African Police Services or other security agencies or service providers, politicians, criminal elements.
  • Accept that the public media debate will rage far beyond the university’s own official communication channels.
  • Accept continuous news media attention, even from foreign media crews.
  • Accept that journalists will not only rely on official university statements, but will report on opinions and actions on and off site.
  • Expect “ambush” interviews with the university executives, leadership and staff.
  • Accept there will be ill-informed, inflammatory statements and at times poor news reporting.


  1. Institutional structures, processes and procedures are too unwieldy and slow to handle an unfolding crisis such as this.
  2. A visible, calm leader should appear, listen and engage. This is about people first listening to people and then talking to people.
  3. This leader, preferably the one in authority, the Vice Chancellor, should either seek a mandate before engaging or otherwise risk his or her position in pursuit of a solution in the interests of the institution, students and stakeholders.
  4. Horst Schulze, President of the Ritz Carlton and now Capella Group of hotels, says leaders forfeit the right to make excuses by assuming their positions.
  5. Blaming a scapegoat will not solve the immediate problem at hand.
  6. Do not dwell on the past.
  7. Some basic rules when communicating:
    1. Know your goals, key messages, target audiences, communication channels, content.
    1. Answer the question Who?, What?, Where? Why?, When? and How?
    1. Keep it simple, give context, repeat.
    1. Listen very intently without interruption – to truly understand both the emotions and the substance.
    1. Articulate this viewpoint to confirm you have heard.
    1. Then give your response, views.
    1. Ask questions rather than making statements – both for clarity, understanding AND for building an argument.  If you frame an unrealistic and excessive demand as a question, some might see it for what it is.
  8. Say what you mean and mean what you say.
  9. Think and use concepts such as:

There is a place beyond right and wrong.  Let us meet there.

Such discussions/language create more heat than light.

Joseph Grenny – Crucial conversations

Joseph Grenny, is a US based expert on “Crucial Conversations”. 

He says that problems in personal or professional settings are often the result of crucial conversations not being held or not being held well. 

If you get stuck, ask what crucial conversation you are NOT having. How many “un-discussables” do you have in your organisation?

  1. Crucial conversations happen when there are a) high stakes, b) high emotion and c) strong differences of opinion.
  2. If you do not talk it out, you will act it out.  It will show in your behaviour and that will provoke a counter response that will make the situation worse.
  3. The childhood myth that you have to CHOOSE between telling the truth OR losing a friend/colleague/client/student is NOT TRUE.  They are NOT mutually exclusive.
  4. Crucial conversations can be a pit (where you get stuck) or an upward path that takes you forward. If you can work not around but THROUGH the truth with absolute respect and absolute candour, you will accelerate the building of trust and intimacy.
  5. You handle crucial conversation by “making it safe” for participants to engage. You do this by establishing in the first thirty seconds:
    1. Mutual purpose I care about your problem. 
    1. Mutual respectI care about you.
  6. Vital behaviour for positive outcomes is “candour at moments of acute emotional and political risk.”
  7. See more of Grenny at

From Risk to Crisis – 10 Ways to prepare and handle it (*business focus, but would apply in higher education)

LinkedIn article by Pieter Cronjé, 27 August 2015

It’s a fine day in the CEO’s office. Results just in look good. The shareholders will be pleased. Analysts and news media will hear a good story. That long-awaited acquisition will now surely speed up.

A telephone call followed by a confirmatory e-mail shatters everything.

 A nasty social media campaign about a company director named in a fraud syndicate is plunging the company and brand name into reputational mud.

 The good results will be drowned out. It’s like an aircraft hurtling down in a tailspin. How will we pull up from this nosedive?

 How can it take years of painstaking excellence, hard work and service to build a brand and a few hours to shame it? How is this fair?

 It’s not. That’s why it’s called a crisis. Many companies have plans and procedures for this – on file. Not many and their leaders are truly and properly prepared when it strikes.

 Dealing with the legal, financial and trading fall-out is only one part of the recovery plan that must kick in fast. The true survival kit now is the ability to communicate credibly, persuasively and timeously both inside and outside the company as well as cool, calm leadership. Companies who are prepared and get it right can retain customer loyalty even empathy. Those who handle their crisis poorly may look back on a once thriving business.

Crises nowadays go beyond their severity: hundreds, thousands, even millions get to know about them through the incredible viral reach of social media. Global 24×7 connectivity and the visual, audio, data and transmission power pack in a handheld smartphone have changed everything. Often those who record and transmit, who opinionate and post do not take the time to verify, check and find other relevant angles.

 Here are ten steps to prepare for and respond to a crisis:

  1.  Prepare (especially in good times!)

What are your risks? How likely are they? (Chance in a million or a sure bet?) If it hits, what is the impact on every aspect of you business? How do you avoid, minimize or manage the impact? Which person is responsible? (Single-point accountability works). If you cannot imagine your own nightmares, look at those of your competitors or similar businesses.

2.   Try to avoid them

Prevention is better than cure. Use education, awareness, training and information to minimize risks. Sensitize and train your staff. Incentivize and reward good practices.

3.   Have a simple, comprehensive and detailed recovery plan

Who informs whom, who leads, who decides, what are the procedures, the resources and logistics required, what are the standby and contingency plans “B” and “C”?

4.  Have a capable planning and response team

It should include: the right executive as team leader (someone who knows the business, can integrate, coordinate, analyze with calm and balanced judgment); your communication expert (communication must be planned at the source of decision-making, not after the fact); the subject expert(s) dealing with the matter (they have core information and knowledge); and a legal expert (for any legal liability or consideration). 

5.  Give them a clear mandate and job description

Build collective experience in risk and reputation management, contingency planning and crisis management; advise and warn the CEO; collate and verify all relevant information, analyze the problem, offer action or solution options with risks to make an informed decision; coordinate and integrate operational responses; follow the agreed communication strategy.

6.  Have a solid communication including a social media strategy

If there is an official communication and information vacuum, viral social media attacks, outrage, speculation, criticism and confusion will fill the vacuum. Inappropriate or delayed communication will draw criticism and unfavourable media coverage. The plan should include objectives, consistent and aligned messages, target audiences, communication channels, print and electronic, and the combination and integration of those channels, timing and budgets.

7.  Have a clear communication protocol

Tell your staff first – customers, family and friends will ask them; make them informed ambassadors, not clueless critics; use a single, mandated, experienced spokesperson for all public information and updates; tell it all and tell it fast, tell the truth immediately, facts as they unfold and are verified. Agree interaction with relevant external agencies where necessary – e.g. emergency or police services. 

8.  Pace yourself – this may be a marathon, not a sprint

It’s pointless having all hands on deck for 48 hours before all collapse exhausted at that same time. Space and schedule response teams. Plan for capacity, a possible IT or communications failure and have external resources on standby.

9.  Give and get calm leadership

If people are losing their heads, someone has to keep his or hers and lead. Use your leaders – those who are calm, humble, learning, sharing, who can make decisions, who know they don’t have to be smart at everything and who can strengthen their team with the skills they lack.

10.  Debrief

It is human nature to heave a sigh of relief and sleep it all off after a crisis. Wrong. While it is still fresh in your memory, debrief. Ask: What went right? (Keep on doing and improving it); What went wrong? Why? (Rectify the mistakes, do something different, ask for help); What can we learn from this? (Embed those lessons for the future)

 A company that has all the above in place, can emerge with its reputation and brand intact – possibly even stronger.

While the ten pointers above may look like the complete do-it-yourself kit, it is wise to invest in the expertise and scrutiny of a seasoned external expert.

If you think about communication when there is a crisis, it is often too late. It works like medical aid and insurance cover.

Media Survival Kit©

LinkedIn article by Pieter Cronje, 17 December 2014

It’s showtime!

You have to face a journalist, or radio or television presenter for a live interview. Or a tense shareholder, stakeholder, union or staff meeting. If you get it wrong, it is there for all to see – and to remember and talk about.

You may have done this before, but on this issue the stakes and emotions are high, people have strong and different opinions. Thousands, maybe millions will be watching………..

What do you do? How do you prepare?

In my previous post, I stressed the importance of communication skills in any profession – your ability to convey your expertise simply so others will understand and appreciate it. These skills will help you face what I regard as probably the toughest test for a communicator – a live interview about a controversial issue with a hostile presenter. These “media skills” will certainly help you in other tough communication spots and when you are having difficult conversations or meetings.

Based on personal experience as a print journalist, a management role in broadcasting and as a spokesperson for five organisations (including the Independent Electoral Commission during South Africa’s first ever democratic election in 1994), I have compiled this Media Survival Kit that I use for training, coaching and consulting.


  • You are the expert – It is part of your job, not a burden
  • An interview enables you to talk to thousands, even millions. How long would this take you otherwise?
  • You are shaping the image of your organisation or cause (and your own!)


  • Respond quickly, be available
  • Know your facts and stick to them
  • Use clear and simple language
  • Stick to your own area of responsibility and expertise
  • Be courteous, professional. Do NOT get angry.
  • Clarify the deadline, angle of the story
  • Keep commitments, meet deadlines
  • Offer to review a draft, but the journalist is not obliged to supply it
  • Correct factual errors only if the draft is sent to you – not the tone or style
  • If the topic is controversial or technical, respond by e-mail
  • Apologies, sincerity are in order
  • In a crisis, stick to one spokesperson – tell the truth, tell it all, tell it fast, followed by facts as they unfold


  • attack “the media”, “journalists”, or this journalist
  • guess, speculate or panic
  • give “off the record” comment
  • complicate
  • threaten
  • be arrogant

Radio, Television

  • What is the topic? Who is the audience?
  • When? Where? How long?
  • Is it live or recorded?
  • Which programme? Who is the presenter/host?
  • Who else is participating?
  • Is this a telephonic or studio interview?
  • Is this a phone-in, are you opening lines?
  • What is the angle of the programme?
  • Get all contact details – studio, producer
  • Accept short deadlines, notice
  • Learn the art of the “sound bite” (telling your story in a short elevator ride)
  • Avoid technical jargon and buzzwords. Keep it short and simple
  • Long answers are difficult to edit and you may not like the end product
  • Short answers often escape edits and allow you to cover more ground
  • Stay calm, focus, stay on message
  • Stay informed, be available
  • Answer the direct question first, then elaborate if necessary
  • Looking at documents will distract you, and break important eye contact
  • Once you are in or near a studio, watch your language, conversations or mobile calls – they could be on air!
  • Talk to the presenter, not the listeners (except in a very relaxed interview)