RIP: America’s Universities as “Best-Kept Secrets”

Despite their many vital contributions to society—from education, health and public safety to research innovations brought to market—too many college and university leaders across the U.S. continue to lament their institutions as “best-kept secrets.”

The “blame” for this typically (and unfairly) falls on the shoulders of the small central public relations and marketing communications teams–as if they’re the only ones responsible for communicating with their institution’s many audiences (faculty, staff, current/prospective students, parents, alumni, donors and philanthropists, the media, business partners, political official, community leaders, and the list goes on)! And the reality is, these central PR and marketing communications team leaders are generally responsible for managing less than 20 percent of their institution’s total public relations and marketing communications personnel and operating budgets.

In today’s 24/7 global news cycle and fast-paced social media channels, these higher education communications and marketing leaders are challenged by shrinking budgets and staff amidst calls for greater accountability.  They must find new ways to raise their institution’s profile and reputation, while also working with administrative and academic leaders to carve out a distinctive institutional position in the regionally, nationally and globally competitive higher ed space.

So what’s the solution?

One compelling approach is under way at the University of California, Davis.  With strong support from Chancellor Linda Katehi and her leadership team, Luanne Lawrence (associate chancellor of strategic communications) began a multi-stage analysis and team-building initiative in 2013 that is now gaining important traction.

Her game plan has included:

  • Researching and analyzing the institution’s total investment in public relations and marketing communications across the main campus, Health System campus and remote locations—not just her office’s staff and operating budget.
  • Reconciling positions responsible for constituency communications and marketing across the institution, because inconsistencies in job descriptions, responsibilities, skills requirements and pay scales evolved over many decades—a common challenge across American colleges and universities.
  • Developing a plan that identifies and focuses on strategic priorities centrally and in the various administrative and academic units, with objectives and tactics aligned with desired results and measures of success. At many institutions across the nation, there still tends to be more of a traditional focus on producing materials and a variety of “tactics”—including printed materials such as brochures, newsletters and magazines—rather than planning and implementing strategic initiatives that assess potential results, impact and “return on investment.” Generally, higher education must continue to move from the analog to digital communications world, with much greater consideration given to creating compelling and engaging websites and leveraging other digital communications and marketing channels.
  • Providing the entire institution with easier access to more cost-effective and “best practices” communications and marketing resources—such as videography, graphics and other visual/written content creation.  Where these internal resources need augmentation by outside firms, she and her team have identified agencies and other vendors who will consistently comply with the university’s policies, messaging and services pricing. Those vendors are trained on the university’s graphic brand and are price locked, serving as an extension of the central office’s capabilities.
  • Cultivating a higher level of collaboration and teamwork across campus communications and marketing personnel to maximize results of the institution’s overall constituency communications investment.

Says Lawrence, “When you consider the myriad audiences we need to reach out to and communicate with, we must collaborate better to cut through the clutter of all the other communications aimed at our same audiences. It’s imperative we set shared goals across campus and all of our locations, and that we set milestones, share accountability for results and measure success.”

Doing a comprehensive analysis of an entire institution’s marketing and communications work and personnel, developing a holistic strategic plan and then executing and managing that plan is no small task. But to take a university from a “best-kept secret” to a household name, every person and communications piece must work in concert to achieve strategic priorities and desired results. Everyone must be working together toward the same goal. It takes commitment, support and patience, but the results can be well worth the effort.

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