(Here is an abridged version of a speech I delivered at the annual conference of the Counselors to Higher Education Section of the Public Relations Society of America on April 14, 2016 at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in New Orleans.)
Back when our founding fathers, those seemingly omniscient wealthy white guys who articulated the principles we live under three centuries later (including our unalienable right to pack an AK-47) they knew they faced a daunting task.
How could they package the various perspectives, wants and needs of the members of the Continental Congress into one coherent position? Thomas Jefferson probably sat there, as visionary as he was, and thought, “How can we BRAND this new and improved style of government?”
You can probably vividly imagine the wild brainstorming session that ensued when representatives of the original colonies began tossing ideas back and forth. They used a whiteboard or packets of Post-it notes to list and align their concepts. They contacted a hotel in Philly that had sufficient break-out rooms so committees and task forces could meet to discuss specific opinions and proposals. They brought in one of the first big-time PR firms (Independent Thinking & Associates) to facilitate the meeting.
And when they were finished politely batting around all those ideas, honoring the first rule of brainstorming by not dissing anyone’s whacked-out proposal, they needed to boil everything down into a first draft. They turned to the most thoughtful, eloquent rich guy in the room, the most talented, creative and skilled writer…Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin, of course, was deeply honored. “Hell, no,” he said. “I’m not writing anything that can be sliced and diced by that many editors. Find yourself another sucker.”
The rest is history. The founding fathers turned to the younger, relatively inexperienced Jefferson, who went to work on one of the world’s most exalted and time-honored documents.
These many years later, Jefferson is credited with authorship of the Declaration of Independence, but his colleagues did, indeed, slice and dice his draft, sharing comments and displaying photos of meals they’d eaten on their Facebook pages, using auto-correct to identify typos and spelling errors, and e-mailing insults so they would not have to offer a face-to-face critique.
So Jefferson deserves credit for meeting the challenge of defining a new government. But we must also credit him with building the framework that has made the development and implementation of an institutional identity at a college or university one of the great political, editorial, organizational and diabolical tasks of our day.
Jefferson clearly believed the final treatise was worth the pain and suffering. His work has stood the test of time and it so effectively defined the new American government and gave it an identity that many politicians and people treat it as gospel even today.
I’m not suggesting the introduction of an institutional identity is analogous to the creation of the Declaration of Independence, but I will say that a clearly defined and articulated identity is the fundamental foundation on which any school’s communications should be built. Seems like many of us in higher education have allowed the process of defining and communicating our institutional identities to go horribly awry.
I hope you read Steve Kolowich’s article in the August 4th edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he took apart one of the pillars of institutional identity on many campuses, taglines. He aptly described them as “marketing rhetoric that is lofty, predictable and numbing at a certain dosage.”
Here are five of my favorites, grouped together among almost 90 equally generic taglines.
Real Tradition. Real Success.
Real Education. Above All.
Real Education. Real Results.
Real Life. Real Knowledge. Real People.
Real People Start Here.
All I have to say about that is…unreal.
We’re not here to talk about taglines, but like it or not they remain the Holy Grail for a lot of presidents and faculty who want to mimic catchy phrases that seem to resonate for corporate America. Those of you who have nailed down an identity know how difficult it can be to build consensus and support for words that define and differentiate your institutions. The catchy tagline exercise makes institutional identity look like a cakewalk.
Two major reasons, it seems to me. First, higher education institutions all pretty much do the same things. (By the way, everybody has great faculty and most of them are really innovative.) And second, should you try to pull out just one truly distinctive, compelling element that might actually differentiate your school from your competitors you will likely be seen as disrespectfully diminishing the value and importance of all the other elements that help define your complex institution.
The result? PR and branding firms are called in and are making a boatload of money by producing meaningless taglines, then convincing Boards, presidents and others that they will motivate their target audiences just because they said so. In other words, the Donald Trump strategy. They’ve done the same thing for name brands and products everyone recognizes so why can’t they do it for your institution? Everyone will feel better with their very own high-priced tagline just like all of those widely recognized brands in the marketplace.
I guess what I like most about an institutional identity, as opposed to a tagline, is the honesty and integrity inherent in it when it is done correctly. It has got to be true. Identity is the platform on which we can honestly tell the world who we are, what we stand for and what our values are. We can define our distinctive qualities and differentiate ourselves from our competitors.
I am certain we all know how to get at identity. You’ve got to have a plan, and like with all effective PR programs, you need to do the research and fact-finding. Then the really hard work begins as you engage your stakeholders and step into the insane and mind-numbing arena of politics on a college campus.
Creating a plan, then conducting the research that will inform your development of an identity are crucial initial steps, but I want to focus for a moment on engagement and politics, which are inextricably related and critical to its success. I think those institutions that have done a terrific job on identity are those who have taken the time to deeply and authentically engage faculty, students, alumni and staff in its development. Our institutions are seen through so many different lenses it is important to get a broad range of perspectives and spend a lot of time listening. While you are doing that you will be building an institutional commitment to the identity.
I was reminded of the importance of building support a week or so ago by a New York Times article that described the furor created when Rhode Island introduced its new tagline, “Rhode Island: Cooler and Warmer.” Rhode Island’s governor got blasted and the slogan was a punchline on social media. The governor ended up scrapping the initiative and in an interview with the Times she said, “We didn’t do nearly enough public engagement before rolling out the campaign.” The legendary Milton Glazer, creator of the iconic “I Love New York” slogan and the guy who got the big bucks to create “Cooler and Warmer,” also scrambled for cover, blaming the governor and her team for failing to lay the groundwork for the end product and provide context for it.
I read that article with a lot of personal interest because I had experienced similar anger and ridicule on a much smaller scale some months earlier. I had had to share three proposed taglines for a capital campaign with about 150 alumni. Going in, I was extremely confident we had brainstormed three creative and clever choices for the group to consider. It turned into a feeding frenzy that reminded me of the famous line in “Jaws” when Roy Scheider first saw the great white after throwing chum in the water. “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” he said.
After a half-hour of pin the tail on the donkey, a marketing professor who is a good friend reminded the lynch mob that a good many enduring taglines were dismissed until they became embedded in a company’s lexicon.
Yep, engagement is time-consuming and fraught with peril, but it is fundamental.
Politics is the hard work with the leadership of your college or university. We all know our plan is going nowhere without the support of the president, vice presidents, deans and other decision-makers on our campuses. We need those essential political skills of consensus-building and compromise that people like Franklin and Jefferson exhibited in creating America’s brand.
Back a few years ago I found myself thinking about Franklin when I was in the middle of the political phase of my latest identity quest. With hubris stemming from past successes having overtaken me, I felt I could ignore Ben’s admonition about editors and craft a first-rate positioning statement and identity that would earn the endorsement of the president, VPs, deans and other campus leaders.
I know many of you have gone through this, so you won’t be surprised to learn that in reviewing my draft some of those leaders had questions. Why did you use ‘and’ in that sentence? Wouldn’t ‘or’ be the better word? Shouldn’t we say something about innovation? And what about entrepreneurial? And how could you leave out ‘real world?’ That’s what we do. We prepare students for the real world.
But it wasn’t over. It got really ugly when a couple of exasperated deans ripped me for leaving out the university’s international dimension. Red-faced and incensed, one dean laid out for me the many international programs his school offers.
A dear friend of mine once said after I had done an equally inept presentation earlier in my career, “When you take an arrow in the chest, just break it off and move on.”
I take pride in the fact that Jefferson and I had something in common, and I know I was inspired by his memory when I told the deans, “You got it. My mistake. I’ll get that in there.”
So now that we have done our prep work and written our new institutional identity, what do we do with it?
First off, your institutional identity becomes the foundation on which all of the work of your central PR shop is built. It informs development of the key messages you want to be conveying at each and every turn, across products and programs, your creative work and your media coverage. It is the essential thread that runs through and binds communications together in a coherent and compelling package.
Your focus is on stories that help convey those key messages. Those stories confirm the truth of your identity because they are your proof points. On the Web, in social media, in media relations, in promotional materials, admissions recruitment information, advertising and visual displays, all of your communications vehicles, the identity is always central to your thinking.
Second, we need to build an understanding and commitment to the identity across the university. Many universities have academic units loosely affiliated with their central PR offices. Because a university’s reputation is largely built on the work that goes on in those academic units, communicators in them are vital contributors and collaborators in finding and creating the content you need. They can also help influence deans and other unit heads to be supporters of the identity.
Third, your identity should also be understood and conveyed clearly by staffers doing public relations on the front line of contact with your important constituencies: prospective students and their parents, potential donors, alumni and campus visitors, for example.
Professionals who have done the best job of communicating their institutions’ identities have done their best work in building support and use of the identity across their campuses. Can’t say I am one of those. It is an extremely difficult task to convince people outside the public relations bubble of the value and importance of an identity. It takes time. It takes energy. Most of all, it takes perseverance.
Some of us remember a couple of decades back when CASE and others promoted the concept of integrated marketing communications as the marketing revolution took off in higher education. My good friends will not be surprised to learn that at the time I was an outspoken advocate for something called integrated public relations. My argument was—and remains—that the concept of bringing consistency and cohesion to an institution’s communications is fundamentally a public relations responsibility, not a marketing initiative. Identity is at the core of that responsibility because it creates a foundation on which we build consistency, an essential element of good, sound, strategic communications that build and promote our institution’s brand.
So that is one very important reason we should care passionately about identity, the catalyst for our ability to tell our story clearly and consistently. And by delivering our narrative in a sharpened, focused manner we are markedly increasing our chances of breaking through the clutter of over-communication, of relentless marketing messages, and actually reaching our audiences with authentic, relevant information. I have discovered over the years that many people, driven to produce more communication and “get the word out”—have long lost sight of the fact that communication does not occur unless a sender connects a message with a receiver.
I was gratified a month or so ago when my boss emailed me about an upcoming video we were going to do. He didn’t like the topics I had suggested because he thought they were getting old and stale. Outstanding, I wrote back, this is about the time when we’re probably breaking through with our message.
Before I wrap up here, I want to emphasize a couple of critical principles I believe inform the development of an institutional identity:
First, and most important, it’s got to be true. There ain’t no spin doctoring going on here. No hype. No horse manure. An identity must pass this litmus test, above all.
Second, it needs to define your most distinctive characteristics, areas in which your institution clearly and truly stands out and has a leadership role. Places where it is forging a new path, leading the charge. Ways in which it does things differently from its peers and competitors. This is where it gets awfully tough because we know that every single part and piece of a campus is of equal value and importance at a college or university.
So it all comes down to this. True identity is not about being a democracy as Jefferson, Franklin and their friends defined it. It’s about thoughtfully, objectively and decisively defining your distinctive qualities. It is about tiptoeing through that pasture of manure and finding your bell cow. What is your bell cow?