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Executive Positioning in Uncertain Times: Lessons from the Kalven Committee


View of the University of Chicago
The University of Chicago's main campus

A recent white paper by the PR agency Greentarget highlights the significant challenges facing executives in an era of political polarization, social unrest, and rapid technological change. As the report notes, one misstep in communication can damage a company's reputation and erode stakeholder trust.

So, how can leaders navigate these turbulent waters and communicate effectively during a crisis? The Greentarget article offers an interesting case study: the University of Chicago's Kalven Committee. In this post, we'll explore the key lessons from the Committee's approach as outlined in the Greentarget report, and provide a step-by-step guide for developing your own communications approach.

The Kalven Committee: A Model for Principled Decision-Making

In 1967, amid the social and political upheaval of the Vietnam War era, the University of Chicago convened a faculty committee to examine the institution's role in social and political action. The resulting Kalven Committee report, as highlighted in the Greentarget white paper, articulated a clear set of principles:

  • The university should maintain neutrality on social and political issues to protect free inquiry and foster a diversity of viewpoints.

  • As a community of scholars, the university's role is to sponsor and protect critics, not to be a critic itself.

  • In rare instances when the university's core values and mission are threatened, it has an obligation to defend its interests.

"The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic...The neutrality of the university as an institution arises then not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints." - Kalven Report

These principles, grounded in the university's core values, provided a roadmap for navigating complex issues while maintaining institutional integrity.

Applying the Kalven Committee's Lessons to Executive Communication

So, what can executives learn from the Kalven Committee's approach? The Greentarget white paper identifies four key takeaways:

  • Define your organization's core values. Before a crisis hits, take time to clarify your company's mission, values, and stakeholder commitments. These should serve as your north star when deciding if, when, and how to communicate on sensitive issues. If your corporate mission/purpose/values are solid, consider whether the organization has a good understanding of them and whether they have been emphasized enough in your business-as-usual internal communications.

  • Establish clear decision-making criteria. Like the Kalven Committee, set clear guidelines for when your organization will engage on social or political issues. This might include criteria around relevance to your mission, impact on stakeholders, and alignment with values.

  • Seek diverse perspectives. Engage a cross-functional team of stakeholders to provide input on communication decisions. Diverse viewpoints can help you anticipate potential pitfalls and craft more nuanced, effective messaging.

  • Communicate with transparency. When you do take a stand on an issue, be transparent about your decision-making process. Explain how your position aligns with your organization's values and stakeholder interests. Invite feedback and be open to dialogue.

Putting It All Together: A Framework for Executive Communication in Crisis

Drawing from the Kalven Committee's model as presented in the Greentarget white paper, here's a simple framework executives can use to guide communication in times of crisis:

  • Assess the situation through the lens of your organization's values and decision-making criteria.

  • Convene a diverse stakeholder group to discuss potential responses and implications.

  • Develop a clear, authentic message that aligns with your values and explains your rationale. (including if the company does not take a stands on a public issue of concern, and why)

  • Communicate with transparency, empathy, and a willingness to engage in ongoing dialogue.

  • Monitor stakeholder feedback and adjust your approach as needed to maintain trust and credibility.

By following this framework, grounded in the principles of the Kalven Committee and the insights from the Greentarget report, executives can navigate even the most challenging communication scenarios with integrity and effectiveness.

Ready to put these principles into practice? Some of CommsPlan's resources may be useful, such as our executive positioning plan template (which include pages on alignment with the organization's messaging), our internal comms plan template, and our message house template pack.

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