What a Year It’s Been

Higher ed insights on our company’s one-year anniversary

We’ve learned so much.

This year we fulfilled a long-held dream after decades in higher education: We launched our own company. Now we consult with presidents and senior leaders on strategy and communication, and our work has been a joy: fulfilling, exciting, creative and launched at a critical time in higher education. Though our client base is quite broad—public and private, large research universities and small liberal arts colleges, associations and boards—these institutions share many common challenges and opportunities that are affecting higher education in 2017. Here are some of the most prominent themes and trends we have observed over the past year:

 There is an integral connection between leadership vision, strategy, communication, and institutional positioning

Our practice is based on the belief that these efforts cannot be separated. If the institution doesn’t know what its priorities are or what makes it distinctive, it’s hard to create effective communications and marketing efforts. If leaders have a compelling vision, but that vision isn’t communicated well or there isn’t strong engagement and buy-in across the organization, forward momentum can wane or, worse yet, the institution can get mired deeply in campus politics and tension. When all these elements come together, leaders can have a positive and powerful impact in achieving goals and vaulting the institution ahead.

Usually we are called in to consult on a project through one lens, such as organizational assessment, strategic planning, branding, big-picture communications plan development or leadership voice. Once we are immersed in the work, we find ourselves knitting together elements from each of these areas. We frequently spot institutional differentiators that offer opportunities for strategy; ways to elevate specific programs; and messaging opportunities that help create internal buy-in and external distinction.

The magic sauce is in the careful synthesis of vision, strategy and communication.

The impact of social media is game-changing.

 The centrality and pervasiveness of social media networks have colleges and universities scrambling to keep up. We see exciting opportunities in the social space: immediate connection for delivering news, engaging in two-way dialogue with stakeholders, evoking emotion and engagement.

Yet the challenges for managing communications in a viral, social world are significant and sometimes frustrating for our sector. Emerging issues and campus crises can take off in social conversations before the institution has even gathered enough facts to assess the situation. The tension between timeliness and thoughtfulness of response has never been greater, and most university teams we work with know they need to design much more rapid response systems than they have used previously. Faculty, too, are now more likely to share their expertise in social media than just a few years ago, but along with positive exposure can come trolls and online harassment.

The days are long gone when universities could “task” a communications staff member with posts to the Facebook page in addition to another workload. Most of our clients are expressing the need for sophisticated social media strategists and resources to design smart content for engagement, respond rapidly in crisis, and support a new generation of faculty, students and staff in the social sphere.

Proactive versus reactive has never mattered more.

Given the frenetic pace of social media and the sensationalism it can spawn, a proactive approach to simmering issues is critical. Universities are working hard to scan their environments and predict potential issues before they develop into full-blown crises. A consistent planning model and dedicated team can help suggest actions the institution can enact prior to an 11th-hour emergency. Sometimes, of course, something unexpected will emerge, but in that case advance “what if” planning and training will make all the difference for an effective, even-keeled and proportional response. Tightly connected teams, including the campus police, student life, communications and general counsel, are key to proactive institutional issues management.

We cannot let our decentralized structures inhibit a strong and unified voice (and dare we say it, brand).

 We understand and respect the value of letting “a thousand flowers bloom,” and the strength that fosters in many areas across campuses. But from the largest of our clients to the smallest, we have heard the challenges decentralization brings to communications efforts. Today’s world is cacophonous with a digital avalanche of voices and messages. There is simply too much noise for fragmentation and too little mind share for a weak brand presentation. University central communications teams have to work closely together with schools and colleges across campus as well as other academic units to design a tightly coordinated and impactful marketing and communications game plan. This does not mean squashing individual voices across campus, but emphasizing a focused set of common messages, visuals and strategy to deliver a more powerful impression for our many stakeholders. Many universities today have come to appreciate the value of a unified presentation, and we talk with higher ed colleagues every day who are thinking about the best ways to coordinate efforts across campus for greatest effect.

The president’s voice plays an every-more important role on and off campus.

 Increasingly, we look to university presidents to provide strong and vocal leadership on societal issues of great impact. Their academic expertise and professional experience can often add important insights in the public sphere. Just as importantly, campus communities expect their institutions, embodied by the president, to articulate the community’s deeply held values. The presidency is a powerful bully pulpit.

We produce a daily and weekly scan of higher education trends in the media (you can subscribe on our website), and we have seen presidents use that bully pulpit in the media’s opinion pages (as well as their own direct channels) to effectively defend immigration and DREAMers; make the case for funding scientific research and public higher education; speak out forcefully against racism and bigotry; and tackle a myriad of other critical challenges.

 Higher education must focus on re-establishing a strong public compact: value, relevance and impact.

 We are at a critical juncture. Earlier this year we forecasted 2017 trends and wrote that higher education is under assault. This has only intensified with a new administration, polls showing growing widespread public distrust, challenges to the value of university-based research and questioning the value of a college degree. For those of us who believe so deeply in higher education’s societal impact, this disregard is a hard pill to swallow. Higher education leaders can be strong voices defending our most cherished values and the importance of what we contribute.

But complacency is risky; we must also re-examine our value proposition and our public compact. What do our stakeholders need from us? Are we delivering relevance and sufficient value for the public’s investment? Are we good regional citizens? Are we doing all we can to provide access and social mobility, and to foster a diverse, inclusive campus community? It is time for critical self-assessment that leads to positive change in our practices, fresh measures of real impact, and new ways to communicate institutional value.

Yes, it’s a challenging and volatile time for higher education. But it is a pure privilege for us to partner with institutions focused on education and societal impact. The University of Texas at Austin’s Main Building has a powerful inscription: “CORE PURPOSE: To transform lives for the benefit of society.” We believe in this deeply and it is what drives us to help institutions develop strong vision, strategy, communications and leadership voice to support and advance that fundamental mission.

Year Two, here we come!

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