Advocacy, Government, Libraries

Library Funding Series: Communications Tips for Surviving a Funding Crisis

This is the third post in my Library Funding Series, a series of posts about my experiences and lessons learned from serving as the marketing and communications director for a public library during the 2008 recession and its aftereffects. Read previous post. 

In my previous post, I explained how we transitioned from a very negative community dialogue about budget cuts, mismanagement and branch closures to a more positive focus on our sustainability plan.

Before I go into more detail about what happened after that, I will share some communications lessons that I learned during this library funding crisis.

Below you’ll find ten tips. It includes a mix of my experiences and advice for library marketing and communications professionals who might be facing a similar situation.

1. Know your audiences
If you already have a marketing and communications plan, great! You probably already have your audiences documented. Divide them into three buckets: internal, external, funding stakeholder. For step by step instructions on how to do this, check out my Simple & Strategic Planning Guide.

2. Identify what engages your audiences
Ask yourself and others:

  • What are audiences responding to?
  • What is on the public agenda in your community?
  • What do funding stakeholders care about?
  • What is important to employees?

3. Develop key relationships
Identify key organizations and individuals that you may need to communicate and work with during a funding crisis. Start with the people who make funding decisions for your library. Who is your communications contact there? Also think about other support groups like Friends, state library, etc. If possible, reach out them during non-crisis times. Talk about the mutual benefits of a healthy, fully-funded library for both parties.

For me, it was important to cultivate contacts with our funding partner, Mecklenburg County. I worked hard to earn the trust of the public information director and slowly began to expand the sphere of County contacts that I could work with.

Relationship checklist: Here are some more key relationships you may want to establish or strengthen. 

  • Leadership and key employees
  • Media
  • Thought leaders
  • High profile stakeholders
  • Public officials
  • Economic players
  • Other (you know best!)

4. Build relationships with leaders
It’s incredibly important for library marketing and communications professionals to be  at the leadership table. In other words, you need to be involved in decision-making. Because of your knowledge of your audiences and their needs, you are in the best position to anticipate how your library’s decisions will be perceived by your audiences. You can also help to anticipate problems before they happen and develop alternatives.

In my case, I would be invited to some meetings, but I had to learn to speak up. I had to assert my opinion, and even occasionally “crash” meetings that I hadn’t been invited to, because I knew the media would be there and I couldn’t manage the story from afar.

5. Be a leader yourself
You have an opportunity to grow as a leader during a situation such as COVID-19 or a funding reduction. Help others where you can. Show leadership by staying calm.  Seek out relationships that are mutually beneficial. Be strategic about how you lead, and think about what example you’re setting for others in the organization.

As I mentioned above, I had to learn to assert myself and invite myself to meetings. I had to get comfortable weighing in on operational decisions. I also had to find allies to support my position. While doing all of that, it was also important to show strength for the staff that reported to me.

Finding a mentor inside or outside of your organization can also help you develop as a leader. You can do this even in a  crisis!

6. Build trust and share facts
One thing I had to learn to do very quickly was to absorb complicated information and concepts such as budgeting, financial statements and operations, and to explain those concepts to others in ways they could understand. This can be a great opportunity to develop new skills and expertise.

I spent hours on the phone with reporters making sure they got the facts right. You can make yourself a “cheat sheet” with all of the important facts and make it available to yourself at work, home and remotely.

Use all of the tools at your disposal to communicate and share facts. We created a budget page on our website and posted our budget for everyone to access. This showed our commitment to transparency. It also provided a “hub” for communicating all the complex facts about our budget and operations. We could point to that hub from other tools such as social media, email and print territorials. Determine for your organization what the messaging “hub” will be and use it as a way to keep your messaging on track.

7. Give people something to support

As I described in my previous post, it wasn’t until we provided our sustainability plan that people were able to stop being upset and start supporting the library again.

Come up with a plan that emphasizes the value of the library. In your plan, be willing to make concessions to the situation. In other words, if your funder has seen a 30% decrease in revenue, don’t ask for a 10% increase to your budget. Read the room and be willing to make sacrifices to show that you are part of the solution. Once you have a plan, be prepared to explain it. A lot. Be prepared to address stakeholder concerns. And be sure that you and your leaders stay “on message” and don’t change tracks without warning.

Your plan, and the situation itself, may evolve as you go. Be prepared to explain, repeat, reinforce and build on people’s knowledge of the situation.

8. Measure your efforts
If you have access to analytics, use them! If you have a special page on your website, how many people are visiting it? Are they contacting you with feedback? How about social media? Are people engaging with your content, and is the sentiment positive or negative? Is your audience growing or shrinking? Looking at your analytics allows you to see what’s working, track response and report weekly.

We increased social media monitoring during this time because we needed to know what people were saying. Even elected officials were speaking to us through social media. And with the rapid increase of followers we were seeing, that meant even more people were seeing what was posted. Analytics  and monitoring helped us stay on top of it.

9. Sustain yourself
We know of course that communications professionals feel pain too. In my case, I had to show a brave face, but I felt the pain just as deeply as my colleagues. I was seeing coworkers lose their jobs, branches close, and library customers losing their beloved library buildings and services. For the remaining staff and branches, we all took salary cuts and were working long hours.  Departmental budgets were slashed. Stress and exhaustion were rampant.

One simple coping skill I developed was that instead of saying, “how are you?” to people, I would say “it’s nice to see you.” It was easier to say because it was true, and it also didn’t force people to either lie or confront how sad they were feeling.

In order to sustain myself I had to become strategic and work smarter. I lost a staff member too, so we had to be realistic about what we could accomplish with a smaller staff and budget. We also tried to remember to take breaks and celebrate successes.

If you can, continue your professional development. When your job is in crisis mode, classes and other training with your peers can feel therapeutic!

If you feel overwhelmed by the demands of your job during this time, develop a simple metric for yourself to measure whether it was a successful day. For me, I would ask myself one question at the end of the day. “Was I honest with myself and others? Did I behave with integrity?” Being able to “yes” to these questions each day gave me a small sense of satisfaction, even when it felt like everything else was falling short.

10. Learn from the crisis
Once you have achieved some equilibrium and your crisis is (at least partially) under control, pause and think about what you’ve learned. Use these lessons learned as research for the next phase of your communications. Don’t go back to “status quo,” stay at the leadership table and use your new influence to help your library to recover. Maintain the relationships and alliances you have developed, and seek more.

In my case, after the initial funding crisis was over, we still needed years to recover and rebuild. The skills that I had developed during the crisis stayed with me and helped me during the recovery. I also was able to continue to grow as a leader. Even as the library continued to go through fluctuations such as leadership changes, hours expansion, capital projects, etc., the relationships I had established continued to yield benefits for me and the library.

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