Got another huge packet the other day. Several packets, in fact. They don’t all fit in a single inter-office envelope. They come in varieties of shapes and sizes, but they all have common characteristics. They are colorful. They are hugely self-serving. And they are an enormous waste of time, energy and resources.
What should I do with them? This is a problem that has long plagued me and my colleagues who lead public relations at colleges and universities. First thought is to trash ‘em. On second thought, what if there is something valuable in there? Should I spend some time running through the pile? Would they provide ideas or inspiration for colleagues in our operation?
Tough management decision, but I’m no rookie. Fortunately, I’ve been around this business for quite awhile and have been put in this position by every president for whom I’ve worked. Presidents get deluged with alumni magazines, research magazines, annual reports and promotional brochures from all kinds of colleges and universities, some unknown to me. And they all quickly ship them out to folks like me, unopened, unread and often unseen. Their secretaries or administrative assistants typically handle the distribution and disposal problem.
Seems some presidents, vice presidents and deans continue to believe against all evidence that sending these four-color, big-ticket publications to their counterparts will benefit them in those notorious U.S. News & World Report reputational surveys.
A fundamental principle of communication is that it does not occur unless a connection is made between the sender of a message and the receiver. Sadly, this precept has been largely ignored by colleges and universities across the country.
While this is almost comical, it is illustrative of a larger problem that should have the attention of communications professionals. Our institutions are wasting a great deal of money on printed pieces no one reads. Even in the digital age, in which some have moved print documents onto the Web, there are thousands upon thousands of publications being produced for one main reason—that’s what we’ve always done.
Time for public relations people to address this problem. It’s not an easy assignment on the decentralized campus. Individual colleges, schools, departments and units produce their own publications, using their own resources. There is sometimes no connection among pieces produced by departments in the same colleges and schools. Some of this stuff is produced by grad students or administrative assistants with little or no communications experience or skill.
As challenging and problematic though it may be, communications professionals have a responsibility to establish and pursue a high quality standard and to try to bring some measure of consistency to their institutions’ communications. Quality and consistency are extremely valuable communications currency, but cost-savings might be the key to achieving publications sanity. It just might be time for pros at colleges and universities to propose a communications audit in which quality, consistency, effectiveness and cost are pillars of the project. Put philosophical communications arguments aside. Surely, presidents, VPs, deans and unit heads would rather spend their money on meaningful projects and programs than on communications tools and channels that reach no one.
Back to those publications packets. What do I do, having been enlightened by years of management experience, with the glossy mags shipped from the president’s office? I quickly go through my pile of magazines and brochures and look for the best examples of inept and outdated design and content and share those with the people who produce our publications. (There are plenty of hilarious examples. Just got an alumni magazine a couple of weeks back where the president was doing some kind of staged dance with a dozen students on the cover.)
It’s good for a laugh and for staff morale. It’s also exhilarating because we know we can look forward to getting something even more pointless and absurd in the next shipment.
But these ineffectual publications serve a more important purpose. They remind us we owe institutions more than just cranking out the same fodder year after year. We owe them leadership, thoughtful analysis and evaluation, and new ideas on meaningful communications that will reach our target constituencies.