Harnessing Your Own Community

I came across an interesting article in The Atlantic recently, and noted it for further reflection. The story, “Employers Are Looking for ‘Influencers’ within their Own Ranks,” looks at the trend of companies tapping their employees to serve as brand ambassadors and social media influencers. Although the context is for-profit business, the concept is directly relevant to college and university marketing.

Higher ed communications typically focus on external promotion: media placements, enrollment marketing, videos and photos for social media campaigns. When internal communication is considered, it’s usually in the context of a problem: addressing a lack of trust or campus concerns around a specific issue. Rarely has it been a strategic and intentional part of a broader communications program.

That’s beginning to change. When the PRG team visits campuses, we often find that internal communications is the first order of business—and we frequently recommend that a senior staff position be created to lead this work. Think about it: the cost and time needed to reach people in the world at large is huge. Corporations spend millions of dollars, even billions, to create targeted campaigns that are carefully researched and use a large quantity of outreach—called “repetition”—to influence their customers. Colleges and nonprofits typically don’t have those resources. But your own internal stakeholders—faculty, staff, students, trustees, alumni, parents and partners—are easy to reach at a relatively low cost.

Here are four good reasons to focus on a strategic, internal communications program:

  1. Those closest to your campus are the most credible sources of information. What they say about you in their networks trumps any positive news story you could place.
  2. Faculty and staff, in particular, talk to their colleagues at other institutions—influencing your reputation within the academy and potentially your rankings.
  3. Smart internal communication is essential to get the campus community to support any kind of change; the more ambitious the change, the more communication is needed.
  4. Communicating consistently about the institution’s mission and purpose, major initiatives, and success stories can increase pride and lifelong engagement by employees, students, alumni and donors.

Most campuses woefully under-communicate to their own community, according to research conducted by many of these organizations. That’s an enormous missed opportunity—compared to many corporate settings, the “internal” audience at any college or university is large, smart and loyal to the institution in ways that corporate communities envy.

But it’s not easy work. Internal audiences in higher education are complex and widely varied in their preferences and habits. Faculty hate to read institutional email, and students barely read email at all. Alumni are often hungry for more information; they hear some of what faculty, staff and students hear, but don’t have the same context, so may need different messaging. Add overlapping audiences like trustees, donors and institutional partners, and it quickly becomes clear that one size does not fit all. The typical methods used to reach campus communities often miss the mark.

In addition, the bullshit radar detector is usually set to “high” in academic communities. So if your messaging sounds overly promotional or doesn’t gibe with their own experience of the campus, internal stakeholders will reject it. And you definitely can’t tell anyone—particularly faculty and students—what to think or say.

So what does work in a college setting? Here are a few ideas gleaned from experience on our own campuses and with clients:

Immerse the community in consistent messaging. At the University of Chicago, we coined the phrase “intellectual destination” to describe a crossroads for ideas and debate. After a few years of using it everywhere—and because it rang true—we began to hear faculty talk about it regularly in connection with their own work.

Communicate the “why.” Academic leaders are often focused with scholarly precision on the tasks and details, but they may forget to remind people why the work matters. Inject energy and inspiration by regularly putting information in the larger context of mission and purpose.

Share concrete stories of success. Don’t assume people know the latest examples of why your campus is a great place. Data and anecdotes about faculty scholarship, student projects, institutional initiatives, alumni successes and community impact all fuel campus pride and give people nuggets to share in their networks.

Build an internal pride campaign. It takes coordinated effort and repetition to get through to busy people. Think about a sequence of activities—pop-up booths, posters, digital screen displays, light pole banners, website and newsletter features, short videos, social media campaigns and infographics—to highlight a related set of information. Possibilities include alumni success stories, interesting staff members, and “did you know” data points on institutional momentum and impact.

Use multiple and redundant channels. Particularly when communicating about change, it’s critical not to assume one town hall or email message has delivered your message. Be sure to use all available channels to get your information out, with repetition over time. At least some of those exchanges should be two-way, allowing you to listen as well as transmit.

Prioritize face-to-face communication. In an era of ever-expanding ways to communicate, we tend to rely on those methods that are easiest for us: posting to a website, distributing a mass email. The challenge is that these are passive mechanisms, and there is no guarantee the audience will engage. Good, old-fashioned human connection is still the best way to make an impression. Think about whether an individual conversation, small-group meeting, town hall or event is the best way to get your content across. Often you can make use of existing slots, such as departmental meetings for faculty or residential house meetings for undergraduates.

Leverage key opinion leaders. Every organization has people everyone listens to—because they have been around a long time, speak with authority, or have their finger on the pulse. Identify these individuals and take extra care to communicate with them regularly and respectfully. Some of them will be supporters and some will be critics—and that’s OK. The time spent to inform them, and listen to them, will provide a huge pay-off.

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