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University Communications Offices - How Will They Look in 2012?

The days of communications offices measuring successes by counting positive media hits will continue to go the way of the dinosaur. Colleges are learning the absolute value of market research, audience segmentation, and the return on the investment of good branding and marketing.
University Business, Jan 2008

If there is an unequivocal given in higher education, often it is this: change comes at glacial speed.

Faculty is renown to "wait it out until the next president," while staff may question "why change," and part-time board members advocate for the status-quo in hopes that "everything will be fine."

Communications offices in higher education are increasingly more open and progressive, but too few have aggressive innovation squarely in the cross hairs, based on a review of more than 40 college and university organization charts. But interviews with leading higher education leaders nationwide suggest strongly that times are changing.

The days of communications offices measuring successes by counting positive media hits will continue to go the way of the dinosaur, for several obvious reasons: First, the readership of newspapers and viewership of local and national TV news, often our outreach staple, is plummeting across all demographics, particularly under age 35. Second, boards, presidents and senior staff members increasingly are assigning the communications team with the responsibility of building and maintaining the image, reputation and brand of the institution - and then holding them accountable for success. This shift places a premium on marketing, database management and self-publishing while downplaying - or at least better focusing - on local newspapers and TV news coverage. And third, we are fast learning the absolute value of market research, audience segmentation, and the return on the investment of good branding and marketing. Colleges and universities realize it can be fatal to ignore this trend.

Geoff Gamble, president of Montana State University, is exploring how to revamp internal and external communications to make that institution as effective, efficient and successful as possible in its strategic brand building designs.

"With increasingly tight budgets and growing demands on building our image and, reputation, we can no longer do business as we once did," said Gamble, who during his tenure has pushed the progressive communications envelope. "We must rethink all of our internal and external communications, ensure we are on the cutting-edge and - most importantly - getting the best return on our investment. Montana State will be a leader in this effort."

Nike, Volvo, McDonald's, Nordstrom, Ben and Jerry's, Harley Davidson and Starbucks have built global reputations and brands through simple, strategic business practices. Lesser known competitors have failed with shallow and muddied images and brands. Historically, such an analogy to a college campus was an anathema. But with constricting budgets, skyrocketing competition, increased pressure for private support and instant communications worldwide, the marketing and branding world has scaled our ivy covered walls.

"I remember when I first started in higher education communications," said Susan Chilcott, vice president of communications for the Washington, DC-based American Association of State Colleges & Universities, which represents 430 public higher education institutions. "Then, all we had was a media relations person and a publications person. In the future, the smart institutions will have a significant amount of coordination throughout the campus and it will become absolutely imperative to manage the brand. You have to become the brand czar. There will be more account managers, not people from media. And there there will be more outsourcing, particularly among the smaller institutions."

"And this business of mass mailings to high school students, those will go by the wayside," said Chilcott, who routinely advises member institution on strategic communications. "It will all be based on SATs, gender, ethnicity and technology - things we couldn't image 20 years ago."

Our firm's analysis of current higher education organizational charts, work with more than 1,000 colleges and universities and interviews with higher education leaders shows that change is in the communications winds - perhaps more so than at any point in two decades. And much of this will center on revamping the staid media relations office into a high powered, technologically-centered entity that revolves around integrated marketing and branding with strong collaboration and increased centralization. The hardened administrative silos of the past will be wrestled down at the most progressive institutions, and "brand managers" - though that term will become dominant slowly - will have increasing control over all internal and external communications and report directly to the president. And the rapidly growing movement from hard copy to electronic communications will continue to accelerate.

Progressive communications teams, ranging from Elon College to College of the Holy Cross, Ball State University, DePaul University, the universities of Virginia and Southern California and UCLA are among many at ground zero adopting a litany of new approaches and technologies - the latter including audio and video podcasts, Second Life sites, campus versions of YouTube pages, uploads to Yahoo! Video, and homepages replete with all the bells and whistles a technophile could relish. Among many, they are examples of early adapters of new technologies and innovative organizational charts rooted in good marketing and branding. While the techno jump can be perilous, it suggests the brave new world of college and university communications is poised to expand, grow and become more essential to the institution's long-term success..

"In the future you will see a see a much more professionally centralized marketing, branding and campus communications operation that is charged at a very high and strategic level where they are managing the brand," predicted Michael Stoner, president and partner of mStoner, a technology centered veteran firm self-described as "communications, not IT."

"Colleges and universities have never been strategic about this," Stoner noted. "You can probably count on one hand the number of colleges that have thought strategically and implemented an effective marketing plan or model. It is like when you have someone who has come from a print communications background to manage your communications. Their analog is print. We don't live in a print world anymore."

With communications teams seeking to break from the traditional mold, often we play a retreat game where everyone checks titles, egos and preconceptions at the door. Step two is to image that the marketing communications team has been hired, en masse, to build from scratch a marketing/media/PR operation at a brand new university, one poised to open its doors at the onset of the next academic year. Here is the mandate: the new communications office you structure is responsible for building and maintaining the new institution's image, reputation and brand - and will be held accountable. Thus, they need to centralize, or at least coordinate, all internal and external communications ranging from recruiting to fund raising to alumni participation and more traditional uses of media, publications and special events. And in each case, they must use state-of-the-art communications, and their achievements - or lack thereof - will be measured quantitatively.

What we find in this exercise nearly always is a radically different approach from most colleges and universities today, those with long-standing structures, reporting lines and goals. Realism must be injected in the exercise, but innovation and cutting-edge changes are all but guaranteed. Our research here and elsewhere suggests 10 changes progressive campus communications leaders- from board chairs and presidents/chancellor to senior staff - will be pondering short and long term.:

1. The importance of traditional media - trade and general circulation newspapers and network and cable TV stations - will continue to decrease as the communications world persists in its dramatic expansion of historically non-traditional media outlets.

The Washington Post last year forced early retirement of more than 50 senior reporters; the Philadelphia Inquirer is contemplating laying off as many as two-thirds of its reporters and the L.A. Times, in a widely publicized imbroglio, lost its two top news executives who refused to continue the carnage of newsroom cuts.

2. Audience segmentation and targeting will become central strategies. The progressive communications operation will become less media-centric and more audience specific - meaning outreach will become much more targeted and personalized. Just as magazines in the 1950's and 1960's became more specialized, outreach venues are following suit - from TV, radio to magazines and newspapers to the Internet, podcasts and blogospheres. Higher education leaders will focus more on effectively reaching key audiences in two-way communications, not through passive outreach such as media releases.

3. Database marketing - akin to self publishing - will continue to grow in importance and widespread usage. Staff members in progressive institutions are building large databases of key audiences, devising communications aimed at these groups and carefully evaluating their success via surveys, unique website hits, followed hyperlinks and other means of measurement.

4. Streamed audio and video will increase in importance, particularly among prospective and current students, young alumni and others in the under 35 demographic. The axiom that today's world is visual has never been more true, and information exchanges will gravitate from the written work to video and audio. As technology advances, the personalization of formerly static electronic outlets will soon follow.

5. Marketing communications offices will become more centralized and empowered as the keeper of the institution's image, reputation and brand. This means the marketing communications office will play a greater role in outreach to faculty, staff and students, prospective students, alumni and donors, government officials and community and business leaders. This streamlined approach will include benchmarks to ensure the outreach effort is meeting specific goals and objectives.

6. Communications outsourcing will continue to grow in popularity. Specialists in branding, marketing, research, technology, media training and crisis communications increasingly will be outsourced due to growth in the value of short-term expertise in the marketplace, which generally costs well below hiring permanent, benefited staff.

7. Solid qualitative and quantitative research will become the underpinning of most strategic communications. These data will help marketing communications managers made solid decisions on key messages and venues of communications. Gone will be the days when anecdotes, gut feelings and guesswork drive outreach efforts.

8. Cutting-edge communications will become more common in marketing communications offices. The outreach effort will center on teams led by marketing communications which aggressively seek new venues to reach their audiences, and then employ those that are effective and cost efficient. Too many communications leaders were slow to realize students morphed from email to instant messaging and concurrently to Facebook and MySpace. What is next?

9. Comprehensive crisis communications have become essential for centralized communications concerns. The tragedy at Virginia Tech and the well publicized student murder on the Eastern Michigan campus were wake-up calls for many institutions who, in the past, gave crisis planning a perfunctory role.

10. Progressive marketing communications planning will emulate best practices in alumni relations and development by creating high powered advisory teams with great expertise in marketing, journalism, media, technology, research and complimentary fields. These ad hoc teams will push the marketing communications efforts to the forefront of campus initiatives - an outcome that will cement the responsibility of maintaining and enhancing images, reputations and brands for the marketing communications offices.

But the transitions will be far from easy, particularly among smaller institutions, predicted Jim Amidon, director of public affairs and marketing at Wabash (Indiana) College.

"In the small college environment, it's hard to break the shell and do things differently without investing huge sums of money outsourcing your brand, your recruitment efforts," he said. "And since most of us have our niches in the market, tailoring our messages will become more important in order to compete. The best shops in the future will be those who communicate not with a one size fits all message, but one that focuses on the individual's (prospect or donor) needs, wants, desires, etc. That's an uphill battle for small colleges, to be sure."

Christopher Simpson is a former reporter in the national media, press secretary in the U.S. Senate, chief communications staffer at three major research universities and founder and CEO of SimpsonScarborough. He specializes in building marketing and branding efforts at colleges and universities.

Teresa Valerio Parrot worked in senior administrative posts at the University of Colorado and is an expert in campus communications organizational structures of the future.

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