Executive Communications: Plan the Work and Work the Plan

Most higher ed communications leaders recognize the importance of a strong communications platform for their institution’s president or chancellor. It’s not about self-aggrandizement for the boss, but the understanding that the presidential bully pulpit is a key component of an integrated, comprehensive communications strategy to advance mindshare, reputation and engagement.

We saw this first-hand when working with then-University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman. President Coleman used her leadership platform wisely and proactively to support larger university communications efforts. Her voice was a singular and strong one, whether speaking out in support of affirmative action or advancing the state’s economic development agenda. None of that work was unplanned or ad hoc, however: it was the result of careful and consistent planning and focus over all the years of her tenure.

Other good examples of college and university leaders who are effectively using their public voices are highlighted in a recent piece in Inside Higher Education on “The Changing Relationship Between College President and Their Brands,” and in PRG’s year-in-review blog posts for 2018 and 2017.

As with every effective communications effort, executive communication is only as good as its strategy and its implementation in tandem. A solid strategy is not enough without consistent and dogged implementation over time; but throwing up one tactic after another without a strategic game plan in place is not likely to add up to more than a bunch of disaggregated parts.

Here’s the planning model we share with clients who want to shape effective executive communications support for presidents and chancellors:

Part One: Develop a strategic executive communication plan – collaboratively and deliberatively.

Put the folks around the planning table who represent key stakeholder audiences on the front end, and ask for their collective wisdom in building a shared plan: articulate clear goals; develop key messages and themes to be delivered consistently; identify target audiences and sub audiences; and shape strategies and tactics to advance the goals (such as the chancellor’s media outreach, op-eds, speaking engagements, community and political engagement, alumni and donor outreach, special events, and internal communications activities to reach faculty, staff and students). Write the plan down. Hold yourselves accountable to the work you have co-created. Over the last three-and-a-half years, we have facilitated several workshop-style sessions to help in-house teams develop the main elements of plans like this, and each has been a rewarding, strategic and unifying experience for the participants.

Part Two: Establish an executive communications team to implement the work.

Key members of the team that designed the strategy can then meet regularly to implement the work. This often includes leaders in communications/public affairs, development, government and community relations as well as members of the president’s office, such as a chief of staff and executive assistant/scheduler. We recommend that the institution’s vice president for communications or perhaps the president’s chief of staff chair this group, driving an agenda to review the president’s calendar and coordinate communications activities accordingly. The regular discipline of focused time together can enable the team to function collaboratively and efficiently, work consistently at implementation over time, plan proactively, and maximize the president’s time dedicated to these functions.

Increasingly, we are asked for guidance about how to best shape an executive communications position to be the day-to-day point person for this work, and often to draft speeches and remarks and other materials for the president. We have seen the position function well when located either in the chancellor’s office or in the communications division, but only when there is a high degree of collaboration and connectivity between the two units. Most importantly, a director of executive communications is not only a writer but also strategist: someone who has a deep understanding of how the president thinks, and is always considering where the leadership voice can contribute the most.

Of course, there is a prerequisite for all this work to be successful: The president or chancellor needs to buy in and commit to the plan. We talk to leaders across the country who understand how important it is to get this right, but who also rightly need to see the value of their time commitment. Also, if the plan fails to reflect the leader’s vision and voice, it has little chance of implementation that will “stick.” Best to engage the president early for idea generation and discussions about why this work is so important and what it will take to do it well.

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