Communications cannot be an afterthought. An effective communications strategy helps build and maintain support among key stakeholders, keeps messaging consistent, and ensures the institution is equipped to respond to a variety of outcomes. Communications should also be considered part of your negotiating strategy: the publisher, too, will read media coverage, web content, and faculty communications.
1. Begin communications work early.
As soon as possible, engage institutional communications experts, both library-specific and university-wide, and charge a communications team. Allow sufficient time to determine communications needs, assess existing communications capacity (and whether additional resources are needed), and start developing a communications plan.
2. Realistically assess your communications capacity.
University systems and consortia should evaluate both individual and collective communications capacity to ensure efficient and coordinated communications. In considering whether to engage a communications consultant, it is important to weigh your communications needs and your team’s capacity to get the day-to-day work done. If you decide to seek consultant support, a communications partner with political savvy, issues management and crisis communications expertise, and experience writing in an academic voice is likely the best fit.
3. Establish a communications leadership team.
The communications team should have the necessary expertise to carry out day-to-day communications strategy and execution, and should include a designated media relations contact. The team should either include or regularly engage the lead institutional negotiator(s) to ensure negotiation descriptions are accurate and nothing is revealed that could jeopardize the progress of the negotiations.
4. Communicate up and out.
Appropriate members of the task force should establish a line of contact with the most senior leadership in the university (administration, communications, etc.) to keep them apprised of key developments (they should know what’s happening before they see it in the news). In large institutions, systems, and consortia, the communications leadership team should also facilitate content distribution and coordinate information sharing among communications representatives for local campuses or consortium member institutions.
5. Identify your spokespeople.
Clearly identify the authorized designate to speak publicly on behalf of the university about the negotiations. Also identify faculty champions and thoughtful skeptics (the latter may be more relatable for some audiences), and secure their willingness to speak to the press in advance, to the extent possible.
6. Maintain an engaged coalition.
Communications between faculty, administrators, and the library should create space for cross-coalition dialogue; representatives from the negotiation task force should not just share information, but also solicit views and advice. Broader stakeholder communications should first be tested with your intended audience to ensure clear messaging and that widely-held questions and reservations are addressed upfront. Talking points and written materials should reflect variability in existing knowledge and level of potential interest, and that the faculty, library, and administration may be motivated by different issues and concerns. Creating a central website provides a consistent, unified message that you can point to.
7. Build on existing policies and principles.
Where institutional open access policies and statements exist, refer to them at every opportunity as a reminder of the coalition’s breadth and commitment. If institutional policies and statements still need to be created, obtain endorsements from key faculty, administration, and library leaders to demonstrate internal alignment.
Key UC documents and resources
- UC system Office of Scholarly Communication webpages on Publisher Negotiations, UC and Elsevier, UC and Elsevier: Why it matters, and
UC and Elsevier: What UC faculty are saying
- Termination of negotiations press release (University Office of the President)
- Alternative access messaging at the system level and campus examples here and here
- Campus-level open letters to faculty (examples)
- Notable media coverage (example)
UC utilized email, web-based communications, faculty newsletters, and campus media to inform faculty (beyond senate leadership and key committees), students, administrators, and library staff about the goals and progress of our negotiations. UC’s internal communications focused on shared objectives, underlying reasons for the approach taken, and plans for supporting faculty and students with alternative ways to access journal articles, if need be.
On every campus the university librarian and faculty senate library committee collaborated on developing and executing a local communications strategy.
Informative (one-way) communications were complemented by two-way engagement via town halls and other activities held on most campuses. Town halls were often co-sponsored by the campus senate chair, provost, and university librarian to encourage participation and raise the visibility of faculty leadership.
Campus-level communications were supported by template materials created by the communications leadership team (e.g., slide decks, open letters, talking points for town halls and meetings with campus administrators), as well as a list of suggested campus outreach actions to reach various target audiences. Communications aimed to reflect that administrators, faculty, and the library are sometimes motivated by different issues and value shared goals differently, and regularly referenced existing statements of values and principles from various stakeholder groups.
Importantly, university librarians and faculty on the task force also communicated directly with UC faculty editors of Elsevier journals, either by email or face-to-face, as we recognized that they would be among those most affected by any change in the university’s relationship with Elsevier and, therefore, that they would have the most questions and strongest opinions.
When the negotiation task force determined that UC should end negotiations with Elsevier and walk away from our subscription agreement, the communications team worked with system and campus faculty and administrative leadership to generate a coordinated, sequenced set of announcements. On the day we announced, the following were published, intentionally in this order:
- Statement from the leadership of the systemwide academic senate, so that the faculty voices would be heard first.
- Press release from the President’s office (with presidential statement) including a link to the academic senate statement. This was delivered to reporters who cover UC broadly and this issue in particular.
- Announcement on the systemwide Office of Scholarly Communication website (the central location for publisher negotiations content for all 10 campuses).
- Open letter from university librarians (in many cases co-signed by the campus provost and senate and library committee chairs), published on campus library websites and/or emailed directly to faculty and graduate students, and including links to the above.
- Social media sharing of the news.