From Ivy League to state schools, university communicators find themselves juggling multiple stakeholders in their outreach efforts
PRWeek convened a roundtable of PR pros working in universities and colleges to discuss the challenges and opportunities unique to communicating in this field. PRWeek's Eleanor Trickett and Lisa LaMotta were present at the roundtable, which took place during the Council for Advancement and Support of Education's CASE Summit, held in New York on July 10, 2006. Plesser Holland Associates and CASE's Rae Goldsmith advised on the composition of the panel.
Eleanor Trickett (PRWeek): What are the issues that you, and your places of work, are facing?
Anne Monson (University of New Mexico): Money and resources are two key things that are totally intertwined. The impact of funding is huge and [affects] how we are able to do the job.
Bill Walker (Dartmouth College): Technology is a big issue for all of us. Most of us at this table can remember when technology was somewhat different. Now we are increasingly challenged with the need to match our delivery systems to the needs of our consumers.
Fred Volkmann (Washington University in St. Louis): Higher education will continue to struggle with the fact that we are one of the most highly regulated entities in America today. We face an enormous amount of expense and time invested in dealing with federal and state, as well as municipal, oversight of what we do.
Bruce Erickson (California State University, Fullerton): That's going to get worse with the accountability movement. A few years ago, it was the medical community that came under that scrutiny. We'll either have to do something - or pretend that we are doing something - to avoid the regulations.
Sandra Bate (Indiana University Foundation): Someone mentioned funding, and with that there is an accountability that I have not seen in higher education since I have been in the field. We like to think of that as... trying to be a little more transparent in fundraising. The financial crisis is becoming very severe. At the state universities, they are acting like privates, and they have been acting like privates for a very long time. So that funding is the difference.
Lynette Brown-Sow (Community College of Philadelphia): Accountability is big issue for us in Pennsylvania, not only national accountability, but from the state. There are big issues for us in terms of articulation, acting as a public institution and a community college. For higher education, marketing used to be seen as a bad word. So if we want to look at marketing, we have to put it into a business model.
Jay Hershenson (City University of New York): Of the areas that have been mentioned, financing and technology, obviously [they are] all about investing in higher education. When we start to talk about accountability at CUNY, we see accountability as our challenge - [and] not [just] a challenge to be imposed externally. We are willing to put forth a performance assessment system so that the goals and objections of the university are not only transparent, but [can] be appreciated by decision makers.
Erickson (CSU): I talked to some of the faculty and senior donors, and they consistently said, "We are not a big fans of marketing and that 'b' word, branding, or PR, but we really want people outside this university to know what we do well." That was the one loud and clear message from them, and since then I have not asked for any funding. I've said, "This is what we have heard is your problem as expressed by you, and here is a solution for it. Before you walk out of the room, what will it take to solve that problem?"
Judy Jasper Leicht (Washington University in St. Louis): [In terms of budget], what we are finding, being located in the central part of the country, is that reporters who used to travel out to do major stories would love to do the story, but can no longer come. We're looking at other ways to get the message out, which means doing broadcast feeds ourselves, which we don't have a budget for.
Teresa Flannery (University of Maryland): We are experiencing something very different. The resources that are coming from our kind of work are growing and becoming incredibly competitive as part of the growth. If I look at what we were asked to concentrate on in the past, it used to be: Help us get our best-kept secret out. Now it is: How are we going to change the conversation among supporters?
Larry Lauer (Texas Christian University): I've come to believe that marketing is more a way of thinking than anything else. It's about how you can integrate a system to position its strengths to meet the needs of the changing society.
For it to work right, everyone in the institution is making decisions, and you need to be on the same page about what that competitive advantage is in this institution, what your markets are, and what media you can best use.
When it comes to the resource issue, the question is: What is this going to cost if we get more into this? If we can get an integrated process here, we can be more efficient. Gradually, resources start to make things move.
Volkmann (WUSL): One of the problems is that higher education's work in branding and marketing predates the corporate world. PR in the universities was created as early as the 1890s. It was operated differently, but was essentially communicating what went on in the classrooms and laboratories. It provided a structure [for] each entity within the institution to provide its own PR.
I have seen institutions that have more than 200 people providing marketing and PR. We have not only created PR, but we have created a different way to distribute it widely, and not brought it back together. The issue we face is not whether we can do it, but whether we can do it the way that works best with the most efficient application of institutional resources. And, can we set priorities that allow the institution to make decisions on what, who, and when certain things happen? It is very difficult to achieve that.
Kim Manning-Lewis (Rutgers University): There is still significant public support for higher education. As we see this declining trend of state support, we know that we have to get the word out there somehow, so that people can see the impact that a state university brings to an economy.
Bate (IUF): That will never be done until there is a prioritization of stakeholders by the institution. Many of the institutions are shy about identifying those priorities and saying of these stakeholders, "Which ones will we focus on?" It is not realistic that we are going to be able to address all of the markets with equally strong messages.
Deborah Grant (Tulane University): Who do you think should identify those stakeholders?
Bate (IUF): I think it has to be the administrations, as advised by those of use who do this for a living. The challenge that we are finding in Indiana is that every time they establish those decisions, there is a big sea change in some place. So the priorities change.
Cynthia Hall (Pennsylvania State University): In large, multi-campus institutions, it is a challenge to differentiate our campuses in a competitive marketplace and still re- main within the institutional brand.
Walker (Dartmouth): Ultimately, it seems to me that we all do a good job of institutional communications and satisfying our institutional needs, but it seems that we have not been able to make the case for education and higher education as a societal benefit. Ultimately, it seems to me that we need to be looking at a wider vision of all of this. We need to make a stronger case for the industry itself.
Rae Goldsmith (CASE): Institutions are competing with one another for the same dollars, and the messages they have been putting out for years are, "We need more," not, "What do we do for you?"... We have got to, as communications professionals, unite around a different message and work that into our presidents' speeches and get that message to alumni.
Lauer (TCU): Higher education has become very risk-averse, and as a consequence, not very many of our institutional leaders are stepping out on these issues. Part of it is that the media have become so aggressive... We as communicators have to rethink how we get things on the agenda in the media. We get the political leaders to start talking about these things, and it gets reported on because they are saying it. But it doesn't just become an issue because we send out a press release on it.
Walker (Dartmouth): The issue is, how you get the message into the hands and the heads of the people. There is a political aspect to all of this that we have to keep in mind. We need credible, third-party people helping to make the case. There is a lot that we can do as communicators on our own, but we should not lose sight of the fact that there are others with whom we should form alliances who have more resources, more credibility, and who very much have a stake in what it is we are doing.
Lauer (TCU): Perception has been that this industry is changing phenomenally; it is not just a national phenomenon, but an international one, and a lot of it is being driven by government cutbacks, an increasingly competitive environment, and a sense that the economy is moving toward Asia. So all the marketplaces are changing, and we are all fundraising all over the world.
Trickett (PRWeek): What kind of impact do media scorecards have on your institution, and what can a good or bad rating do, both internally and externally?
Erickson (CSU): We are turning away thousands of qualified students. It is important that we are fairly well-rated, and we do promote that fact, but we don't need to turn away more students. It is a positive thing.
Goldsmith (CASE): What we hear at CASE is [that at some] types of institutions and at some levels, it makes a huge difference. The unfortunate thing is that [scorecards] tend to drive behaviors on campus that can be unhealthy. So the communications community tends to be a little leery of how and when you brag about it.
Volkmann (WUSL): Rankings are very specific to the academic area and to the audience. If you look at law schools, rankings are the only things that are important to them. Business schools are a close second. It's usually not in the top 10 reasons a student picks an institution... parents tend to put the greatest credibility on these rankings of all of the audiences.
Grant (TU): Rankings are an endless source of frustration for us. We wait every August to see what is coming out. What we found is that they are a shorthand way to give a label to a university. It makes the schools easy to understand if you don't understand the system. If our rankings fluctuate a point or two, our students get very upset, and they see it as a marker for the quality of their education.
Flannery (UMD): I agree with everything that has been said about their marginal value. Yet they do have a great value for us because they are an incredible source of competition and intelligence, and they are a great tool to help focus on the characteristics that make a quality institution. It helps us focus on what aspects might make our institution better.
Manning-Lewis (RU): We have endless meetings, with institutional research analyzing what we are measuring and how we are measuring it, how to move their number this way or that way. You become consumed by it. Word of mouth is much more important to the institution. I agree that the rankings are such a frustration.
Hershenson (CUNY): I think the rankings have the greatest benefit in [that] they are part of a discussion between the CEO of an institution and those who are operating the institution on the campus level... [they become] part of a performance evaluation.
If one of your goals is to be in the top 25 business schools, and [you look at] how you get there, that is... reasonable. They become problematic when people use the rankings as their sole PR dream. If you use that as the sole purpose of your campaign, what happens next year when you don't do as well?
Trickett (PRWeek): What kind of media is important to you?
Volkmann (WUSL): What is important is driven by who is making the message for us, which starts with your CEO, your trustees, your deans. The New York Times is seen as the most important paper to everybody. Aside from the fact that there are other great newspapers in this country, the internal audiences don't watch any TV. In fact, some pride themselves on not reading any newspaper other than The New York Times.
Monson (UNM): We just did research, so we knew what our audiences are paying attention to. The newspapers were key with our legislatures and businesses. With the students, it's TV, radio, and the Web is huge.
Grant (TU): After Hurricane Katrina, almost every news outlet in the US has established a bureau in New Orleans. People call us all the time; we have unprecedented coverage in national media. [But] you have seen the stories coming out of New Orleans; it doesn't paint a pretty picture. It has been very hard on us as far as our student recruitment rates. It's a very intricate balancing act for us. We reap the rewards of having the media there, but they are also doing those other stories that are not altogether positive.
Walker (Dartmouth): The new word of mouth is the Web. We continue to build relationships we need to have with the major news media. Increasingly, for a different reason, that sort of activity is much more branding than it is the conveying of actual activity. While media relations is diminishing in importance as a conveyance of activity, it's no less important in reputation building.
University of Maryland, AVP of university marketing and communications
Council for Advancement and Support of Education, VP of communications and marketing
City University of New York, vice chancellor of university relations
Tulane University, vice chancellor of university relations
Texas Christian University, vice chancellor of marketing and communications
Rutgers University, VP of university relations
Washington University in St. Louis, vice chancellor of public affairs
University of New Mexico, AVP of university communications and marketing
Dartmouth College, VP of public affairs
Judy Jasper Leicht
Washington University in St. Louis, executive director of university relations
California State University, Fullerton, AVP of university communications and marketing
Community College of Philadelphia, VP of marketing and government relations
Penn State University main campus, director of university marketing and advertising
Indiana University Foundation, executive director of marketing and analytical services