Promoting PR’s Value in Colleges and Universities
(Abridged and adapted from a speech made on March 14, 2012 at the College and University Public Relations Association of Pennsylvania annual conference at the Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pa.)
I’ve been asked to talk about how we public relations professionals navigate through these troubling times in American higher education. I need to remind you before I begin that you must take everything I say with large grain of salt, because I am now a consultant after many years as an administrator in higher education. And as some wise person once said, a consultant is just someone without a job.
So if you are a bit troubled by some old unemployed guy telling you what you need to do to keep your job and continue to be successful in higher ed PR, well, take out your IPod and plug in your headphones.
From my vantage point of what I like to call “intense maturity” I can look back at more than a quarter century of remarkable change and enduring frustration in higher education public relations. I had no way of envisioning the humongous impact of digital communications back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Who could have known I would be unable to buy any more Jackson Browne albums? I could not foresee a day when people would actually care what Kim Kardashian tweeted about yesterday. I had no idea that following someone could be done at a computer keyboard (and pretty scary when I first heard about it) in the privacy of your home. Who knew that you could mount wallpaper without slapping an adhesive on drywall?
A quarter century later, newspapers are dying and many are dead. There is no news cycle anymore. Those printed materials, those four-color brochures and magazines we’ve long produced, are well on their way to extinction. The pace of communication has rocketed.
And who could have known that “marketing” would become the word loved and embraced by Development officers and other administrators in higher education? Every organization markets everything today, even when they are not marketing anything. I read a Philadelphia Inquirer article some time ago in which a guy at Valley Forge told the reporter he was in the business of “marketing” the American Revolution. Marketing has legs. The word is now included in almost every vice presidential title in higher education public relations. It is part of the industry’s lexicon.
Along with marketing has come a word and concept that has captured the imagination of higher education: branding. If you are in the marketing business you must also be in the branding business. Many administrators in colleges and universities don’t really know what the word means, but they know they need to be doing it.
Who could have imagined the ferocity of the assault on higher education that is going on in state houses around the nation? The complaints about faculty productivity, rising tuition and intransigence to change have been around for decades, that’s true. The past few decades have been marked by a declining trust in our country’s institutions and that includes colleges and universities. But some of our governors and legislators have attacked higher education with a new intensity, severely reducing their support and aggressively questioning how honestly and effectively colleges and universities are managed. Some of higher education’s most strident critics have run for president.
Higher education public relations professionals have never been challenged like you are being challenged today. The demands are so much greater, the stakes higher, the obstacles more menacing. The complexity of communication is much more intricate.
But here’s the good news. You’re good at what you do and you can handle it. You’ve got the brains, the skills and the savvy to succeed in this brave new world. I’d venture to say you are among the smartest people at your institutions, though you will likely never get acknowledged for that. If some college and university presidents were as savvy, thoughtful and articulate as their chief public relations officers, higher education would not be in the world of hurt it is in now.
In his ballad, “I and I,” Bob Dylan sings, “I make shoes for everyone and I still go barefoot.” When I hear that song I often think of the spot you PR pros find yourselves in. You are artists, strategists and skilled communicators who know how to promote your institutions, to inform and engage, to help your campus partners evoke the meaningful behavior your institutions need. But many of us do one crappy job of getting the full credit we deserve for ourselves and our work.
Before I am critical of any of you, I must confess that I am perhaps the person most guilty of negligence in this area. Looking back at my years in this great profession, I have done a woeful job of making a concerted, consistent and compelling case for the value, importance and quality of the work I’ve done and my staffs have done. So I guess my message here is: Don’t follow my example.
You can do a much better job than I have ever done. Commit yourself to chronicling and compiling your accomplishments. Seek opportunities to present to institutional leadership the impact you have made in supporting initiatives and programs. Aggressively recognize outstanding work by members of the staff through e-mail and other forms of communication. Create a dashboard of measurement and evaluation that will enable you to demonstrate real progress and success.
Let’s reflect for a minute on some facts that sometimes get lost in the shuffle as you are going about your daily ministrations trying to make your institutions look good. You need to remind yourselves that you have skills, special skills that are extraordinarily valuable to your colleges and universities. You are creative and imaginative. You are strategic. You are inquisitive. You are problem solvers. You know how to communicate. You can write, edit and craft stories. You can paint pictures with your photos and videos. You can see the whole picture when you look at your institutions and their relationships with their key constituencies.
Nobody on your campus matches your skill set. No one has your understanding of the entire organization. And no one on your campus ranges as broadly and deeply as you do in the life of your college or university. No other administrative unit on your campus connects with every one of your institution’s constituencies. You do.
So what’s the problem? Well, we simply must do a better job of public relations for public relations. To get us started, I thought I might suggest a few tactical maneuvers that might get the wheels turning in the right direction.
Public relations, as we all know, is most effective when it is employed in a strategic fashion, when it is involved in decision-making and planning, not just in executing tactics. It is crucial that we make this case strongly on our campuses. If you do not have one, go home and develop a strategic plan for public relations at your institution. Tie that strategic plan to the strategic business plan, the goals and objectives, of your college or university. Make clear the connection of your public relations practice to the success of your institution.
The growing complexity of communication, the continuing emergence of new communications channels and the promising opportunity to better target your important constituencies make a strategic plan imperative. As part of our plan let’s be more diligent in finding ways to measure or evaluate our strategies and tactics in keeping with that bottom-line orientation marketing has so clearly taken advantage of.
I noted earlier that marketing has become THE buzzword in higher education. One of the reasons is because it seems to have more of a “return on investment” implication than the term public relations. (No one in higher education has ever liked the words public relations.)
In today’s pragmatic, bang–for-your-buck world, marketing suggests that what you are doing has a measurable payoff. You are giving to get. Needless to say, what many in higher education define as marketing is simply not marketing at all. I was on a panel a year or so ago in which a marketing professor opened up by annexing public relations strategies and tactics into his definition of marketing. The effectiveness and value of public relations principles are so obvious to our friends in marketing they are claiming them for their own.
For the past decade, our friends at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education have further damaged the PR profession by making the case for something called integrated marketing communications when, in fact, they should have been advocates for integrated public relations and communications. After years of mumbling to myself and others that marketing and public relations are two distinct practices I am harnessing my psychotic rage and conceding defeat. It is time to simply declare we can do marketing and subsume it under the public relations enterprise. Remember, public relations addresses all of an institution’s key constituencies. Marketing does not. I am conceding marketing’s primacy in the minds of higher education administrators. I am not conceding it in execution.
One of the anchors around the neck of public relations folks at colleges and universities has been that anachronistic department called the News Bureau or News Service. Can we all agree to go back home and shut them down? These departments suggest a role for public relations practitioners as campus journalists. Besides being a misnomer (you really do not produce news, you produce publicity) these departments diminish the value of public relations because they harken back to a time when producing news releases was all a college or university would hire a PR person to do.
The time is long past for us to abandon this construct, particularly now as we noted earlier, when mass media, especially newspapers, are rapidly declining in their power and influence. The skills of journalistic discovery and writing remain extremely vital. We need to consider a new model to bring them to bear on all of our institutions’ critical communications channels.
It is so easy to be taken for granted on your campus, isn’t it? You have the talent and skill to remedy that. To do this, take a lesson from our friends at public relations agencies, absolute geniuses at getting max credit for everything they do. Tie your strategic public relations program to the strategic plan of your institution. Organize or re-organize to achieve that plan and abandon history and tradition as a basis for your blueprint. Create a comprehensive public relations program that encompasses what I call integrated public relations and take charge of the marketing function. Become the lords of quality and consistency at your college or university. Act on your world. Don’t let the world act on you.
I have been blessed to be in a profession I have loved these many years. I can honestly say I have never had a day when I did not want to go to work in the morning. I hope you share that feeling.
A decade ago, when I decided to leave Pennsylvania for the foreign country of Texas I had been offered at the same time the position of president of a public relations agency. The potential money was hugely appealing. But I turned it down. What was I thinking? Well, I was thinking that public relations for higher education feels right to me. It is part of my DNA. These colleges and universities we represent are absolutely essential and critical to changing our world for the better. I was thinking higher education is a cause worth devoting my life to. I hope you share that feeling, too.