Jim Broughton, Head of International Engagement at the Natural History Museum, gives some useful advice on how to manage potentially difficult situations or questions that could put yours and your institution’s reputations at risk.
Q. What do I do when local events threaten to overwhelm my partnership programme?
A: Keep things in perspective. You may have worked on a project for months, but bigger issues can emerge that demand your partners’ immediate attention. These might range from the extreme – natural disasters, civil unrest, etc. – to very local matters, such as the unexpected arrival of dignitaries or the disappearance of your key contacts at the behest of their seniors. It is almost impossible to be too sympathetic in these circumstances. Of course, you might reasonably have different expectations from long-established peers, so do balance this with a little assertiveness if you feel that advantage is being taken of your good nature!
Q: I don’t want to be photographed with this person/talk about this issue on camera, etc. How can I get out of this?
A: Be prepared to think on your feet…Should you end up being put in a situation with which you know you shouldn’t be institutionally associated, then you might need to be creative. Feeling faint can give you a moment’s pause, your phone might ring with an urgent call, etc. and this can avoid you making a scene.
Q: I’m not authorised to speak on behalf of my museum, etc. What do I do?
A: Know which hat you’re wearing. Consider carefully who you are representing each time you work internationally – is it yourself, your institution, your sector, or your country? Consider carefully the messages you provide in advance – think about the content of biographies, conference abstracts, etc. so you don’t end up being an inadvertent spokesperson for something beyond your remit. If necessary, ensure you have had media training, and remember it’s OK to admit when something is outside your specialism and to offer to make connections to the right colleagues back at base.
Q: How can we stop our name being taken in vain?
A: Be clear what you’re bringing to any partnership. Think about what your partners’ drivers are, and don’t assume they are the same as your own. Do they – for example – want professional services, to share knowledge/collections, or to use your association with them to grow their own credibility? Joint initiatives do not immediately confer the right to joint publicity, or to legitimise other activities beyond the scope of the immediate partnership. Quite often, misunderstandings arise out of naivety more than by design, but it is always essential to set the terms of reference in advance.
Q: How can I explain that we can’t help with funding/provide free training courses, etc.?
A: Be honest. It’s quite reasonable to expect partners to think your institutional circumstances are the same as their own. The fact that many prominent institutions in the UK don’t receive full state funding or charge admission fees often comes as a surprise in parts of the world where museums are still closely linked to central government. If partners understand that your intentions are not philanthropic, then it can help build their confidence that yours is a relationship of equals.