Strategies to build town-gown relations
In our efforts to market and communicate with our various constituents, we often overlook one of the most important support groups we have—our college town.
It’s not intentional. As long time neighbors, we simply take one another for granted. But that’s changing as institutions and their local governments look to one another for creative ways to collaborate and maximize financial and capital resources.
Colleges and universities are typically the economic engines that drive the quality of life in their local towns. They tend to attract a diverse population, ranging from young professionals to retired senior adults. They also encourage industrial research and development, a better mix of retail and vast opportunities in the arts and athletics.
The need and desire for universities and their communities to become better dance partners has led to the creation of a nonprofit association focused solely on establishing and enhancing better community relations—the International Town and Gown Association, based in Clemson, S.C.
The ITGA’s network of resources is helping more than 200 colleges, universities and municipal governments come together on issues such as mixed-use development opportunities, the quality of life around the edge of campus and in off-campus housing areas, and sharing water, fire, police and other services.
“We are seeing town-gown relations being strengthened in communities around areas that are of common interest and benefit,” says ITGA Executive Director Beth Bagwell. “College towns are growing economically through stronger university-community partnerships that nurture startups and promote regional/local economic development opportunities.”
Successful town-gown efforts do not happen overnight. They take time, commitment, patience, creativity and a willingness from both parties to give and take. College and university public relations and marketing professionals can play an instrumental role in developing and enhancing these relations:
- Establish a “Town-Gown Commission” consisting of representatives from the community, university and municipality to share ideas and address common challenges. This body will carry more weight if the local mayor and the college’s president jointly give it their charge and appoint the executive team.
- Become a strategic communicator for both your president and mayor by keeping them abreast of current or emerging issues on and off campus.
- Schedule forums involving the mayor and president. Invite the mayor to conduct a forum on campus that involves the student government association. Likewise, the president should consider holding a forum off campus with the local chamber of commerce or city council.
- Invite university and civic leaders to quarterly community leadership breakfasts. Breaking bread while discussing town-gown issues can resolve issues more quickly and be an excellent way to energize these leaders as they become better acquainted.
- Become actively involved with one or more community organizations. As your institution’s spokesperson, your involvement demonstrates the institution’s sincere interest in improving quality of life in your college town.
- Strategically prepare and place news stories that highlight town-gown collaborations. Community media and student newspapers are often eager to publish such and they often make for excellent social media posts that can carry far beyond your city limits. This can help you brand your college town as being among the nation’s best.
- When engaging your institution with the host community, be smart and targeted, use your time effectively and efficiently, and make things happen for your institution’s leadership.
- Keep the local media well informed and involved in the life of your institution. That includes being transparent about the occasional not-so-good news moments, too, as this helps build mutual trust.
As your institution’s public relations and marketing professional, be a cheer leader for your community and university. You can position your president, institutional leadership and yourself as the complete town-gown ambassadors. Your institution and host community will both benefit from the relationship.
Marc C. Whitt is associate vice president for public relations at Eastern Kentucky University, as well as a member of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Advisory Council on Communication and Public Affairs.
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