9 Tips for Engaging Student Activists

College campuses have always been prime locations for social activism. Events on campuses deliberating current issues can highlight the power of student activism to command traditional media attention, dominate social media, disrupt academic operations and, yes, even bring down presidents and chancellors.

But these are also opportunities for campus leaders to demonstrate the core values of higher education – engaged discourse, collegiality, teaching, listening, transforming. Effectively managing such events on your campus must begin well before they surface in rallies, protests or sit-ins.

Here are 9 tips for engaging student activists:

1. Build relationships before you need them. This is by far the most important step. You cannot build relationships during a crisis or protest. Campus leaders, senior staff and student affairs professionals should reach out to student government leaders, leaders of minority student groups, Greek organizations and other constituencies. Say your door is open – and mean it. Doing so builds trust with each group but also establishes a reputation that carries over from year to year. Many an issue that becomes a public protest could have been resolved if administrators had listened to the student leaders earlier.

2. Give students your time and attention. No one engages in activism half-heartedly. Students moved to the point of protests, sit-ins or demonstrations are serious about the issues they have chosen and committed to making a difference at the institution and in society. That is a good thing that should be genuinely valued by senior administration. Listen more than you talk, especially early in the event.

3. Respond quickly. Speed matters. The compressing of the communications cycle means that we no longer have the luxury of time when responding to campus activism. Leaders must respond in some way early in the cycle. Building relationships as outlined above will help, as will tracking national trends on campus activism and preparing your response.

4. Go where they are. Setting matters. While it is good at some point to hold a meeting with student activists in an office or conference room, the leader’s first interaction with them should be in their space. This doesn’t have to be – and indeed should not be – a discussion of the substance of their concerns, but instead an offer to begin a dialogue and to show support for their right to speak and be heard by leadership. Be willing to commit real time to them and their concerns.

5. Never underestimate the power of social media. Social media organizes the core constituency of the activists, but it also allows remote agents to participate in the discussion of the issue. The good news about bad news is that people are paying attention; engaging in social media helps you frame the issue for them.

6. Give them a victory. All good negotiators understand the give and take. When feasible, accept a demand early – this demonstrates that you are listening and could keep the situation from escalating.

7. Anticipate traditional media will sympathize with the student position. I’m loathe to generalize, but in almost three decades of working as a reporter or working with reporters, I observed that there is a pronounced tendency to side with the little guy versus the big guy, the individual versus the organization, the student versus the university president. Still, traditional media can help deliver your message to a wider audience, including key influencers among your constituencies.

8. Take the opportunity to educate students on the issue at hand. Tone is important – this is not a classroom lecture. But once the discussion is engaged, there will be opportunities. In my time as Assistant to the President at the University of Georgia, I spent hours and hours in discussion with students who wanted UGA to stop using coal in one of its boilers. One of the students proposed that we install solar panels on top of every campus building. While not a bad idea in and of itself, as I told her and her colleagues, you can’t boil water with solar power – and the campus requires a steady supply of steam for heating buildings, sterilizing instruments, cleaning cooking equipment in the dining halls and other necessary functions. When the opportunity presents itself, teach, but gently.

9. Finally, students leave. It’s the nature of the campus cycle. Students almost always leave campus, and with them go their concerns – until next fall.

Chuck Toney leads the higher education practice at Jackson Spalding, an Atlanta-based full-service marketing and communications agency. He served as assistant and speechwriter to two presidents during a 15-year career at the University of Georgia. He also worked in the Public Affairs office at Clemson University and served as Press Secretary for a Georgia Congressman.