Getting Under the Hood of a Great and Good Communications Program

Peterson Rudgers Group is regularly asked to conduct communications and marketing assessments for colleges and universities — often when there is a change in leadership, either at the presidential or vice-presidential level, and leaders want to check in on how well their program is serving a changing set of institutional goals and needs. As part of this work, we look at self-identified peers.

Dave Martel, Vice President for Communications and Chief Marketing Officer, University of Virginia

Time and again, the University of Virginia’s program has stood out as one of the best in the country, whether it’s the creative way they communicate about progress toward the university’s Great and Good strategic plan, their outstanding UVA Today daily newsletter, or a whole array of creative projects and campaigns.

I thought it would be interesting to learn more about how Dave Martel, UVA’s vice president for communications and chief marketing officer, thinks about this work. Dave generously agreed to an interview, and below are highlights of our conversation.

How do you think about your work and how has that affected your strategic focus as a team?

Priorities, expertise, and passion. Our success is due in large part to having clarity about our institutional priorities, understanding what we are good at and embracing projects that we are passionate about. Organizations that consistently live at the intersection of those three things — priorities, expertise and passion — will do great work.

We also benefit from only having one client: the University of Virginia.  It is an iconic brand over 200 years in the making.  Our primary goal is to showcase the University as a model of excellence in public higher education. We have an effective hub-and-spoke model that encourages collaboration with communicators working in the various schools and units. This has allowed for us to develop a widely-adopted brand ecosystem and for UVA Today to be a well-read platform for UVA’s best stories.

Circling back to our passion for the work, I can distill it into four key elements:

  1. Our mission is to educate citizen leaders. I get up every day energized and enthusiastic about that mission.
  2. We have a deeply talented team. I benefit from being surrounded by a team of people who are so much smarter than me in their areas of expertise.
  3. We are resourced to do the job we have been asked to do.
  4. We have the latitude to do the work the way we think it needs to be done.

Also, I love books on leadership and self-improvement, as they have shaped my approach to coaching, performance, and planning.  Jim Collins’ seminal work “Good to Great,” Daniel Pink’s “Drive” and Jonathan Haidt’s “Happiness Hypothesis” are some of my favorites.

How did you develop your current strategic communications and marketing plan?

Under President Jim Ryan’s leadership, we were in on the ground floor for creating UVA’s 10-year strategic plan, “A Great and Good University.” Paraphrasing President Ryan, the premise of the plan is that in the not-so-distant future, higher education institutions will be evaluated not only on excellence, but also on their commitment to do good in their communities — to have a positive impact. That framework served as the blueprint for our last strategic communications and marketing plan, and for the one we just adopted for 2025-2030.

To develop our plan, we partnered with a talented firm whose approach resonated with us. We dug deep into team feedback to tease out our aspirations and assess what kind of organization we wanted to be. We developed guiding principles and priorities: the importance of having a unified content strategy and identifying key content themes and messages; finding, telling and expressing those stories and experiences; measuring our effectiveness; and making staff success, growth and satisfaction a high priority.

Our team also goes through an involved process to develop an annual work plan — committing to each other, in writing, the objectives we will work on over the course of the year. We stay accountable to each other by meeting regularly to assess our progress.

UVA’s storytelling is among the best we’ve seen nationally. How do you develop your content strategy?

That’s kind of you to say, thank you. We have an exceptional team of writers, editors and content creators who develop an editorial content plan. That plan lays out the kinds of stories we will share over the course of the year, ideally ones that are informative, engaging, entertaining and interactive. We also place a premium on how stories are visualized.

Largely, we run our news and content area much like a daily newsroom. As a result, we have gone from UVA Today yielding one million page views a year a decade ago to consistently exceeding five million per year today. About one-third of our traffic comes from organic search, which we attribute to content marketing, digital strategy, SEO and a stellar user experience.

In the content strategy space, we are really just getting started. Internally, we are calling it our move from “stereo” to “surround sound.”  We have been taking steps toward enhanced collaboration across our units. Simply talking about the value of an omnichannel approach has already strengthened our work.

Staff well-being is a key pillar of your strategic plan. How are you thinking about supporting your team?

One of the devastating secondary effects of the pandemic was its impact on staff retention. Today, two-thirds of our team has been with us fewer than two years, and one-fourth of the team is early in their careers. That’s a lot of new people. I thrive on their energy and enthusiasm — they have a curiosity and lack of inhibition in pushing boundaries, and the creativity is contagious. Thankfully, they also have a bit to learn about the principles of strategy, planning, measurement and learning to see around corners. It feels mutually beneficial — the “veterans,” learning from those earlier in their careers, can also offer advice and insights into doing consistently great work over time.

You want your team to be fulfilled, successful and happy.  To have a robust post-Covid team, it was a no-brainer that our culture and staff engagement would be one of our four objectives in the strategic plan. (As an organization that operated for an extended period down over 400 hours a week in labor, it gets your attention in terms of how important it is to be focused on nurturing the team’s success.) We want to foster a vibrant organizational culture, to be the place where people want to work, and for the team to know they are working for one of the best communications and marketing teams.

How do you help your team foster creativity and take risks?

To be innovative, you have to be comfortable taking risks. Celebrate successes big and small. And when things don’t go well, learn from that, and avoid creating a risk averse environment.  One of my favorite Jim Ryan norms is to admit mistakes, make new mistakes, and forgive honest ones. That approach goes a long way toward people feeling encouraged to push the work.

A recent example of fostering creativity has been in collegiate licensing. That’s the ultimate expression of brand affinity — consumers paying you to wear your brand. We took over the program a few years ago and our team began developing boutique collections — Red, White and Hoo, Cavalier Dark Mode, and Virginia Vintage — where we get to flex our creativity, marketing and digital skills.

And you see the spillover effect in our other pursuits. A good example is our institutional advertising campaign called “To Be Good and Great in All We Do,” which is some of the strongest creative and strategic work I have been a part of.

Something I learned from former Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall is the importance of featuring our work in our office environment. Step into our building and you will see our work everywhere you look.  We are also dogged about keeping our on-line portfolio updated, as it serves as a significant point of pride.  And when recruiting, we want to “wow” candidates and show them the work they will be doing. I hear repeatedly that people joined our team because they saw the work and thought, “I want to be working at a place where this is the standard for the work we do.”

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in higher ed communications and marketing during your 10 years of leadership at UVA?

Tenures have gotten shorter, and communications leadership is more transient. I am not sure if that is good or bad, but as someone who worked at UConn for 20 years and now for over a decade at Virginia, it is remarkable to see how short tenures have become. No doubt this is in part driven by the shorter tenures of presidents and chancellors, and that the scrutiny of higher education has intensified.

The second trend would be the profound impact of digital content and marketing: the scope, the reach and the degree of specialization that is required to do that work well. I also don’t think we spend nearly enough time talking about the inherent value of marketing and brand strategy, or how critical exceptional creative is in our storytelling efforts. Some view excellent creative as “nice to have,” but it is essential if you are trying to elicit an emotional reaction or feeling.  And across higher education leadership, there remains a knowledge gap in understanding how to organize and execute sound communications and marketing work.

What else is on your mind that your higher ed colleagues should be paying attention to?

Universities tend to focus on talking about research breakthroughs, promoting economic development, and knowledge creation — all admirable.  However, it is important to be clear about the reason people send their kids to college: the promise of a better life, the pathway to a good job and a satisfying career — a life well lived. We must stay focused on our mission to educate citizen leaders and to prepare them for the road ahead.

4 thoughts on “Getting Under the Hood of a Great and Good Communications Program

  1. Tammy DeMel

    He is singing my song. Wish I had the opportunity to work with and learn from him. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Joseph Brennan

    Love these leadership lessons, and agree with the philosophy Mr Martel follows. in learning more more about how he sustains of vibrant organizational culture in the face of what sounds like significant staff turnover.

    Reply

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