OP-ED: Honors Committees Must Learn to Communicate

by Rene A. Henry
Rene Henry, right, with Rafer Johnson
Rene Henry, right, with Rafer Johnson

Chances are if you ever nominated someone for a hall of fame or comparable honor you never got a response or heard anything further from the selection committee unless the person you nominated called to give you good news.

 

Colleges and universities have halls of fame to honor former athletes, coaches and sports administrators and alumni associations honor their distinguished graduates.  Professional organizations honor members for outstanding lifetime achievement, often with the designation of “Fellow.”  Colleges have retired the numbers of its greatest athletes and named stadiums, basketball courts, buildings, streets and meeting rooms to honor individuals.  Today many of these naming honors come with a sponsorship price tag or sizeable contribution or gift to the college.  

Those responsible for the administration of the selection committees all too often fail in communicating to the people who nominate candidates for various honors.  I know from personal experience because I’ve written letters to many committees recommending individuals only to have my correspondence fall into a black hole.  Sometimes I may receive an acknowledgment of my nomination, but only once have I received a followup telling me the status of my recommended candidate.  Once my recommendation is in the hands of the selection committee all communication dies.

 Perhaps my expectations are too high, but I believe anyone recommending someone for an honor would appreciate knowing whether or not the candidate is honored.  If not, the individual needs to be told whether there is a need to resubmit an application and what is going to happen to the information the committee has on file.  This is simply the polite way to communicate.

 One would think that those responsible for halls of fame and similar honors would know that is it not only inconsiderate, but rude to not communicate.  In higher education the alumni associations are much more responsive than their counterparts in the athletic department.  When it comes to communicating, I applaud the William & Mary Alumni Association who really does it right by following-up.  However, I give a failing grade to the Public Relations Society of America, an organization of professional communicators, for being non-professional and not communicating.  It just comes down to plain old fashioned common courtesy.

Most often individuals are honored for their lifetime achievement.  The criteria used to select candidates for sports halls of fame varies with colleges, but three of the most common include: 1) Achievements of the individual while at the college as an athlete, coach or administrator; 2) Lifetime achievements of the individual in sports during his or her professional career; and 3) Consideration of what the individual has done for the college in the years after leaving. 

The weight given to each of the three also varies.  Institutions that only consider what the individual did as an athlete, coach or administrator are being terribly short-sighted.  Using only this criterion, a score of hall of fame football and basketball coaches and several prominent individuals who are in multiple halls of fame would never have been honored by their alma maters.  These include Mary Lou Retton, Peter Ueberroth, Pete Rozelle, Lou Holtz and Mark McCormack.  

Following is a protocol that should be adopted as policy for any institution or organization that has an honors and awards program and wants to do the right thing:

1. When a nomination is received, the person responsible as secretary for the committee should promptly respond to the nominator with a letter thanking the person and providing information on when the selection committee will next meet.

2. The administrator should create a file for the candidate with information provided by all those making nominations as well as other information that might be available.  The file should include a contact list for all nominators and the candidate.

3. The nominators should be sent the names of the members of the selection committee and the by-laws or rules governing the selection of candidates.  

4. Following any decisions by the selection committee, the nominators and candidate need to be notified of the results.  If the candidate was not selected, the nominators should be told what will happen next.  Some questions need to be answered.  Does more information need to be submitted?  Will the candidate be automatically considered the next year?  And for how many following years?  This is easily accomplished with a computer and a form letter that is individually personalized.  All too often I’ve read about the decisions of the selection committee in a publication rather than being told by the committee itself.  

5. The candidate’s file should be a living file and additional information added as provided.  All files should be periodically reviewed by the administrator.

6. If the nominator asks for the vote tabulation the committee should be open and transparent and provide this information.  

 

Such honors and awards are opportunities for any organization to create new friends and further develop existing friendships.  A failure for the committee to be communicative or responsive could even impact future gifts.  When an individual accepts the honor of being on the selection committee s/he accepts the responsibility also to be responsive and return every phone call and answer every letter, email and fax. 

Establish terms of service for the selection committee so there is a regular and periodic turnover of members.  Have a good demographic mix.  All too often many old timers get overlooked because no one on the committee has any institutional memory.  Some young committee members today consider all-whatever honors very important but do not know that a few decades ago there were few football All-America teams and not today’s proliferation of one for offense, one for defense, one for special teams and another for whatever.

The progressive colleges do what the National Football League and Major League Baseball have been doing for years and induct up to two seniors every year to insure that no worthy candidate is overlooked.  Those that really do it right even have a separate committee for such inductees.  

 

Rene A. Henry lives in Seattle, writes on a variety of subjects, and has authored nine books including “Customer Service: the cornerstone of successes,” which is all about common courtesy.  Born in Charleston, WV, he has received numerous honors including the Alumni Medallion, the highest honor given by the William & Mary Alumni Association; being inducted into his Granby High School (Norfolk, Va.) Hall of Fame; and elected chair of the College of Fellows of the Public Relations Society of America in 2001, that also awarded him its Paul Lund Award for Public Service.

 

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