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Construction site: Proceed with communications

How to sell the benefits of facilities projects and campus expansions during a time when budget cuts could mean job cuts
University Business, August 2013

Summer months on college and university campuses are typically filled with a multitude of facilities projects ranging from required maintenance and renovations to new building construction. The period between spring commencement and fall convocation are important months for renewing facilities, as the majority of students, and many faculty, are not on campus and therefore not inconvenienced by construction during these months. But how do colleges sell the benefits of facilities projects and campus expansions during a time when expense reduction measures are negatively impacting personnel? Appropriately and consistently communicating the goals and future benefits of these projects to internal stakeholders will create buy-in and understanding of their necessity.

Sign of progress

The higher education sector of our economy continues to invest in facilities. According to the 2011 Annual College Construction Report, last year, U.S. colleges and universities completed slightly more than $11 billion in construction projects. This included approximately $8 billion in new construction, $1.4 billion in additions and $1.7 billion in renovations. While total construction spending by college and universities is down slightly from record high spending just a few years ago, investments are still being made on constructing and expanding new classrooms, laboratories, dormitories, sports and recreation facilities and other infrastructure to meet projected enrollment expectations and gain market share of sought-after students and premier faculty and staff.

It is important for colleges and universities to invest in facilities for a number of reasons. Campus facilities represent a competitive differentiator for all college and university stakeholders — students, faculty, staff, alumni, legislators, and the community. Modern academic and research buildings, as well as upgraded residential, athletic and student services buildings are needed to keep pace with peer and aspirational institutions and attract prospective students, faculty and staff. In addition, today’s campus buildings and grounds are used hard during each academic year by hundreds and in some cases thousands of students, employees, alumni as well as visitors. Some colleges and universities were founded hundreds of years ago, and are simply not able to handle current utility requirements or comprise some buildings that are approaching the end of their useful life with some sort of retrofit.

Balancing the investment message

Money to support facilities upgrades and new construction comes from a variety of sources. Appropriately managing revenue from student tuition, fees and ancillary services as well as cost efficiencies gained by optimizing the effectiveness of administrative and academic support is collectively one important source of construction funding. State support, while a declining percentage of total available capital funds than in prior years, remains a critical source of funds for campus facilities projects. Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, philanthropic funds are often dedicated to specific building projects.

All this is positive news for campus communicators. External audiences, from the media to potential students and parents to alumni get rightfully excited about new and modern facilities. But what about the internal audience of current faculty, staff and students? In some cases, building sources of funds come in over time, especially if appropriated by a state legislature, bonds are issued or philanthropic campaigns take time to catch momentum. During this period, while colleges and universities face tightening expense budgets and revenue compression they are often faced with having to make difficult personnel decisions, ranging from layoffs to furloughs to delaying salary increases. And current students are often assessed fees for projects that will likely benefit future students. How do college communicators balance the perception that the institution is investing in buildings instead of investing in people? How does a campus sell the benefits of future facilities and campus expansions while cutting administrative support?

Strategies for internal communications

The key is consistent communication to internal audiences before, during and after completion of campus construction projects.

  • Define the goals of each project and clearly outline the future benefits. At the onset of all facilities projects, from new buildings to routine maintenance and repairs, share plans with the campus community. At the University of Delaware, the communications office works closely with facilities and internal departments to provide campus and visitor information on construction projects. For example, highlights expansion of the recreation services building. The University also provides a complete list of all projects planned for the summer months. And just prior to the start of the fall semester, share the progress in completing these projects.
  • Help audiences understand the factors leading to decision to invest in new facilities. Tie facilities investment decisions to the institution’s vision, strategic plan and values.
  • Share local construction company job creation with your community. This economic impact is important for legislators and for internal audiences as many of the individuals working on these projects may live in the community.
  • Create a dedicated website with details of each project, periodic aerial views of the construction site via a webcam, floor plans and renderings. Keep the site up to date in order to show construction progress and engage current staff in the progress. At Georgia Regents University, the Office of Communications and Marketing developed a dedicated site, that highlights the progress being made on a new academic building on campus. Cameras with two different views have been set up overlooking the construction site and the website is updated every 15 minutes with new images.
  • Share message points and frequently asked questions and answers with the campus community that provides transparency in terms of project expense, timing and funding.
  • Celebrate milestone construction events, such as topping off, with internal news releases.
  • For departments that will be moving into new facilities, begin conversations with them prior to the start of construction and keep them informed with periodic updates. Hopefully these departments will have had input into the design of their new “home.” Keeping them abreast of progress through periodic “hard hat” tours or staff meeting updates creates a sense of pride and ownership.

Campus facilities upgrades and construction is a way of visibly showing progress to college and university stakeholders. The construction and renovation of facilities should be handled like any other strategic marketing campaign and specifically address the questions and concerns of internal audiences. Focus on sharing both the features and benefits of future facilities and how these projects support the long term vision of the institution. Keep current faculty, staff and students informed through a steady stream of information to create their engagement and loyalty.

David Brond is senior vice president for Communications and Marketing at Georgia Regents University