Appendix B
Episode 007 -

Breaking out of Emergency Mode

Appendix B Episode 7, text is present that reads, "Breaking out of Emergency Mode."

How many times have you heard, “you know, not everything is an emergency,” in your campus’s MarComm office?

Does your marketing strategy feel more “reactive” than anything?

Are you constantly putting out fires?

Let’s talk about why that might be.

Sometimes it’s because you’re underfunded, or there’s been a change in leadership, but often, it just comes down to setting proper goals and expectations based on the size and abilities of your team.

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Carl Gratiot: Is your campus constantly in emergency mode, always reacting to things and putting out fires? Let’s talk. This is Appendix B. Here’s Kristin Van Dorn and Joel Goodman.

Kristin Van Dorn: So Joel, a frequent thing that we hear from clients is that even though they want to get to planning, even though they want to have a sensible system for communications and for web updates, they always feel like they’re in emergency mode.

Joel Goodman: Yeah, I think this is sort of a thing that’s really common in higher ed in general. I mean, I remember when I worked on a campus, it felt like we were always reacting to something. And the work that we did, was always super, super urgent. And it’s funny cause I think back to when I was an undergrad and one of the professors that we had actually was the head of our department.

She always had a sign up that said, you know, a lack of planning on your part DOES NOT constitute an emergency on my part. Which, you know, as undergrads you’re like, oh, well I, I tried my best. When you’re adults and you’re actually working and, you know, working for a multi-multimillion dollar brand like a university, it’s kind of wild to me that we still end up in this reactive emergency 911-style, stance towards, towards everything that comes our way and, we’ve been talking about this a little bit, Kristin, but there are a few different things that I think contribute to it, and a few things I know that you think contribute to it as well.

Now, one of the big ones that you brought up was being underfunded, just a lack of money towards doing the things that actually need to get done.

Kristin Van Dorn: Yeah. I think that a lack of funding can have a big impact on this sense of impending urgency or emergency, just because there’s no give or slack in the staff model that you have, you’re running on such a tight budget that you’re not equipped to manage the slings and arrows of everyday work life.

And so what happens is, is you get sidelined by a few things that come seemingly out of nowhere. And without that given the system to absorb it, you just feel like it’s an emergency and everyone’s strapped for time and someone goes on vacation and it’s, the whole thing feels like it’s about to collapse.

Joel Goodman: And part of that is just being like, I think with the underfunding is being spread and stretched so thin across a bunch of different things, and I think we’ve talked about this before, but not being able to really focus on the core parts of your job, which, you know, if you’re a marketing director, you should be really good at strategy.

It’s probably a part of why you are either hired or got promoted into that role. It’s cause you’re able to plan and able to do the strategy. But when you’re constantly having to react to things because there aren’t enough people, there aren’t the right tools in place, or you don’t have the right systems in place, it just shortchanges the whole kind of efficiency and potential that your organization has.

Kristin Van Dorn: Yeah, I completely agree. Now, Here’s one of the ones that I think also contributes to the sense of emergency. And tell me how you feel. But I think a lot of it has to do with the basic structure of higher ed in the sense that we have a lot of leadership transitions going on throughout higher education that are necessitated by the field.

So at any given time, you might have a new dean or associate dean, or you might have new department chairs. Maybe they’re on a three or four year cycle. And whenever that happens, first of all, staff need to budget time and their routines to educate the new people coming in on how they work, what works well, what they’ve found to be effective, what they’ve found to be ineffective.

And on top of that, a lot of times a new dean or associate dean or even department chairs will come in with ideas of their own about what they wanna see shift and that take up anything from a new web redesign project to a focus on more ad spending to a focus on more public relations, and that shift in strategy takes time to adapt to, and it takes time to re-skill and make sure that you have the right time budgeted for these projects, that you have the right people on them, and that can really throw a marcomm office off joint.

Joel Goodman: Yeah, without that continuity of leadership, it’s very difficult to stay true to whatever goals or whatever plan you actually had in place prior.

And we see that, you know, even at a, we wanna take like a really general level when new presidents come in, like all of a sudden there’s so much stuff that’s new and different and, you know, priorities change for bosses, and then the bosses have to change the priority for the middle management and the middle management have to change priorities for all their general workers.

And it’s very difficult, again, just to stay in a mode of control over the marketing practice that you’re trying to get in place. And a lot of that just has to do with politics, which is another, another point that, that you’ve mentioned. Just all of the complicated in-fighting and grappling for funding and grappling for power and everything else that goes on with these leadership changes that constantly happen.

Kristin Van Dorn: Yeah, there’s a lot to the emergency mindset. And one of those things is looking more effective. If you’re constantly putting out fires, you have fires to put out and you’re effective at handling them. But another thing is, is that if it’s an urgent or an emergent problem, it suddenly takes center stage and that could be what you need to tip the discussion into more funding or into another staff position.

And so I think we sometimes leverage emergency situations almost to trade on for more resources. But that doesn’t mean that because it’s done on a superficial level that it doesn’t have downstream impacts. And I think staff tend to feel that the most.

Joel Goodman: So what do you think are some ways that offices, whether it be marketing or, I mean, I think that this applies to a lot of different, a lot of different offices and departments within a university or college structure. What are some of the things that folks in those officers should be thinking about to try and minimize this constant reactive emergency mode that they seem to find themselves in?

Kristin Van Dorn: Well, I think that there’s a couple of strategies, A big one, if you’re in a leadership position, is advocating for right-sizing your office and being clear about what your office can accomplish based on the staff and the resources that you have, and to fit your strategy to those resources and staff rather than try to fit, your staff and resources to a strategy that maybe you can’t afford.

Another thing that I think is if you’re not in a position of leadership, if you’re just managing this emergency mindset all the time and it’s taking a toll on you that, this is not to sound victim blamey, like this is a systemic issue across the industry, but I think that you could think about how you want to be reactive to this emergency mindset that higher education carries into its communications practices with, and so I think that you could decide this is not something that I need to be as reactive to, or that I’m going to allow to cross my work boundaries and just it, it’s easier said than done, obviously, because all of us have those difficulties withdrawing hard boundaries with work, I mean, myself included, but I think that it’s a good first step to just acknowledge that there is a systemic issue here and that you don’t need to necessarily play the game in order to be successful in your job or successful in your work.

The last point that I would probably make is that in emergency thinking that this puts a ton of pressure on staff across the organization and for people that are already under a lot of undue stress, you wanna make sure that you’re being an effective ally and not increasing their stress. So, I think it’s really important to think, particularly in leadership, about how you’re passing that stress down to your staff when everything feels so urgent.

And if you have the opportunity to be an advocate and an ally for your team, in the sense that organizations need to grapple with shortfalls and funding and they can’t do it all the time, and they can’t do more with less.

Carl Gratiot: Thank you so much for listening to Appendix B. If you like this music, I mean, I know I do. I’m gonna download it and listen in my car. You can go to LinkedIn and thank Joel Goodman because he made it. And if you wanna hear more from Bravery, please consider subscribing to our newsletter at, and we will be back next week.

Thank you.