Interview with Tracy Brala, University City Science Center

During today’s uncertain times, marketing and communications pros are being forced to operate through previously uncharted waters. To learn more about navigating this situation, we’ve interviewed communications experts across industries.

This interview is with Tracy Brala, the Vice President, Ecosystem Development for the University City Science Center.

What has been your overarching approach to communication in this time of crisis?

From the beginning of my time at the Science Center and running Venture Cafe Philadelphia, I’ve focused on creating a culture that is open, welcoming, and inclusive. I have built up a high level of trust so that in a time of crisis, I can rely on that credibility; it’s not something I am trying to develop from the ground up now during these uncertain times. It gives my employees and the broader community a sense of clarity, knowing that my words and actions are coming from a place they are already familiar with.

My Crisis Management “C’s” are: Cash, Communications, and Compassion

  1. Cash: Most people who know me are struck when I say “cash” first.  But for me, it means gathering the information on what is going on with your business (or life).  What is your financial situation? What do you need to do to conserve?  What plans are you making?  Are there options that you haven’t previously considered? Once you’ve reached a reasonable level of understanding — it is an unknown situation you won’t know everything — you are ready to move to the next “C.”
  2. Communication: First and foremost be positive — be pragmatic — but be positive. It is also important to be truthful and transparent. It is ok to state that there are many unknowns and offer the support that your employees and community need. You also need to be willing to live the message.  Don’t say one thing and do another.  More than ever, your every move is being watched and your credibility is being reassessed.
  3. Compassion: The situation is difficult for all and you really don’t know the burdens beyond the crisis that others are facing. Many people are not at the top of their game right now.  Be generous, heap praise and cheer them on.

What do you think has been your most effective communication?

On March 16, I did my weekly email to the Venture Cafe community entitled “The World Changed Last Week.”  It got so many responses because it was positive and inspiring and what people needed at that moment.  We had already been virtual for Venture Cafe for two weeks, so the community knew our team was dealing with the crisis well before others recognized it was a problem. The weekend before was when a lot of closures with schools and counties were being announced and our community and employees were afraid.  Providing them with inspiring content that included actionable steps (breathe, experience nature, learn) to make sense of a situation that felt overwhelming provided a stabilizing, calming voice in the chaos.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for communicators in the coming weeks and months? 

It’s been challenging trying to find the balance between modeling positivity, navigating a new norm, and recognizing that people are hurting. We also have to acknowledge the unknown. There is no playbook for how this situation will unfold and it’s ok to acknowledge vulnerability while working together to maintain stability – there are some things we can’t fully prepare for. If we’re all willing to share best practices and work together to get through this, we’ll all be better off.   

What advice do you have for people in marketing communications for whom this is their first crisis situation?   

Create a framework for your communication (ideally beforehand) and stick to the plan. Just because everybody and their uncle is sending an email saying, “Wash your hands,” does not mean you need to do it too.  Make sure you communicate when you have something meaningful to say, not just to say something.  Stay calm. Do what you need to do to be your best, so that can translate for your team.

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