Comms team educates the world about Dartmouth

From students to society, Dartmouth has much to offer. And thanks to its five-year-old public affairs team, more people, both within the school and throughout the world, are recognizing it.

From students to society, Dartmouth has much to offer. And thanks to its five-year-old public affairs team, more people, both within the school and throughout the world, are recognizing it.

Dartmouth College is undertaking an ambitious $1.3 billion capital campaign, already earmarked for facilities, financial aid, and faculty. But the campaign probably wouldn't have been possible a few years ago. Public affairs is playing a crucial supporting role, by working to elevate the college's academic reputation.

But just four years ago, the school's communications function was largely siloed and disjointed.

So in 2001, Dartmouth appointed its first VP of public affairs, with the hope of enhancing the coordination and effectiveness of the university's communications. It represented an evolution of leadership and operations at Dartmouth, the nation's ninth oldest college, founded in 1769.

"A lot of institutions have a decentralized environment [because] there are a number of different constituents," says William Walker, VP for public affairs. "Each has some things in common and some that are separate and distinct. There had not been a history of coordination of the different communications functions [at Dartmouth]."

Dartmouth's constituent groups include students and alumni of the college's various schools and organizations. Admissions, fundraising, and alumni relations are the three primary marketing areas. The overall operating budget for Dartmouth exceeds $500 million, yet the public affairs operating budget (which has grown slightly during the past four years) is less than half of 1% of that amount, or $2.5 million.

John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an association to which most college and university PR people belong, believes the creation of a VP communications position indicates the college understands the value of PR.

"[It] signals how Dartmouth sees that communications and marketing play a strategic role in the life of the institution," Lippincott says. "It signals commitment to looking at PR not as a ser- vice function, but as a strategic one."

"The value of PR has to do with establishing a presence, both in the country and internationally, so that prospective faculty understand Dartmouth is a good place to pursue their work, and policy-makers know that this is a place [to] turn to for advice or expertise," says James Larimore, dean of the college. "[PR helps] people understand what we're doing and how a small college in New Hampshire can make a difference in individual lives and contribute to society."

Spirit of collaboration

Since the inception of VP leadership, a campus-wide "communications committee" of senior-level PR people meets regularly to ensure planning-process coordination.

"Integration and collaboration have been very helpful," says Kim Keating, PR director for the Tuck School of Business. "It makes so much sense. We're all going for international branding. It's nice to learn from each other. We're all on the same team. There's no competition. It's more of [a sharing] spirit now."

Deborah Kimbell, media relations director for Dartmouth Medical School and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, previously hadn't been too involved with the public affairs office.

"Bill has been very open to collaboration where it makes sense and allowing offices to have autonomy where that makes sense," she says. "We've all come to realize when you have your little fiefdoms you can think that the publicity for your piece is really important. What people see is Dartmouth. I get the biggest benefit if I can present myself as part of Dartmouth College, and that enriches the reputation of Dartmouth. [Bill has] broken down some of those walls. There is no downside to joining forces to reinforce our image."

Enhancing the college's reputation is crucial to drawing funding, and using the faculty's expertise to attain media coverage has been one avenue toward this end.

But the remoteness of Dartmouth has been one of the biggest challenges hampering that effort. Boston, the closest major city to the school's hometown of Hanover, NH, is two hours away.

"Satellite technology enables us to have our faculty on national and international TV from an on-campus site," Walker says. "It used to be that every time someone was booked on CNN for a 45-second spot, the first thing you did was drive 80 miles. It seemed like no matter what time of year you had to do that, it was snowing. We've really concentrated on overcoming that distance and using a more aggressive approach of bringing the story to the journalist - either directly or indirectly - using technology in ways we hadn't before."

Andy Plesser, founder of Plesser Holland Associates, whose son graduated from Dartmouth, started working with the college pro-bono last spring. Dartmouth hadn't retained a firm in recent history, but Walker saw that Plesser could bring tangible value.

"It's a real partnership, one that I expect will pay strong dividends over time," Walker says.

The agency primarily works to raise faculty visibility by helping book TV and radio spots, bringing faculty members into major media markets for tours and dinners with journalists who cover their respective disciplines, and organizing media trips to the campus for events and lectures.

"There's a huge amount of intellectual capital at Dartmouth," Plesser says. "[We] create a sort of media dossier on many professors and then a strategic plan, [which is] often tied to world or national events."

Walker says the system for tracking media hits was "more anecdotal" before he arrived in 2001.

"We've established a tracking system that is more thorough and analytical, in terms of both tracking numbers and evaluating content," he says. "It's clear that the number of positive placements has risen every year."

Ties to students, past and present

 Another of Dartmouth's challenges has been finding ways to connect with alumni, one of its primary constituencies. Interactive webcasts and electronic newsletters have helped.

"[Recently], we had an interactive webcast to alumni about the most important elements of liberal arts education," Walker says. "The indirect mess- age is that it's necessary to raise a good bit of money to deliver the [type] of undergraduate education we deliver."

Walker adds that Dartmouth, like all academic institutions, is challenged to establish the "story it has to tell about itself." Ultimately, he thinks the best storytellers are the students and the faculty.

Student stories can be powerful and run the gamut from inspiring to tragic. Recently, a group of students traveled to Biloxi, MS to help with post-Katrina rebuilding. They'll return next year, and The Christian Science Monitor is set to accompany them to cover their efforts.

Dartmouth is also known for its strong Greek system, which can generate challenges, says Larimore.

"I feel like we're on [public affairs'] frequent customer list," he laughs. "[When] we're the source of the controversial subject or hot topic, they help us deal with it. [We've made] terrific progress in improving the performance of sororities and fraternities, [but] occasionally one will do something we'd prefer they hadn't done that puts them in the public spotlight."

Past situations include parties that have gotten out of hand or have had controversial themes. "We have a duty to take it on in an educational way," Larimore says. "We're fortunate that [our] public affairs colleagues understand and offer advice about communicating effectively with people who don't live and work on a college campus."

Communications at Dartmouth is fast-paced and Walker understands the necessity of staying on top of strategy and issues affecting journalism.

"We're in competition with a lot of distractions for people's attention," Walker says. "There is a shift in journalism [with] the blogosphere. I don't know that anyone knows exactly what that means yet. We do know that bloggers are paying a lot of attention to each other, and media are paying attention to the influential bloggers."

Most college public affairs offices have scant resources. Walker doesn't know of any that have all they need. He believes the best way to maximize Dartmouth's resources is to give his people a charge and get out of their way.

"There's a sense that this place is special," Walker says. "We have an obligation to find ways of causing the world to understand what is special about this institution. The environment supports a lot of creativity - maybe some unconventional thinking from time to time. [We're] very conscious that the most effective communications is two-way. To really engage with people is very challenging, but also very satisfying."

 


PR contacts

VP for public affairs
William Walker

Director of publications and editorial services
Rick Adams

Director of media relations
Roland Adams

Director of conferences and special events
Ann Malenka

Director of periodicals and communication services
Laurel Stavis

PR agency
Plesser Holland Associates

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