No doubt like Henry Kissinger, we all wish that we could just focus on the part of the job we love—developing creative, innovative, brand building strategies as opposed to thinking about, or worse, facing an actual crisis. Crises are hard! Tensions are high; scrutiny is intense; the underlying facts are bad; the decisions that need to be made are incredibly challenging; and oftentimes the search for a scapegoat precedes the pursuit of remedies.
With high profile executive departures at Berkeley, Missouri, Baylor, Davis, Temple, Louisville, and DePaul; churn at the top seems to have reached epidemic levels. What hasn’t grabbed the headlines is that the turnover of AVCs of Communications after a crisis is probably even higher. How can you protect yourself and your strategic priorities when danger seems to be perpetually lurking on the horizon?
A Press Release Can’t Save An Institution— Only Action Can
It is important to recognize that the MarComm team serves dual role– to both build and to protect the reputation of the institution. In most cases, the “build” side of the equation gets the focus, the resources and is, no doubt, what interested you in the first place. While natural and understandable, it is equally important that you prioritize the “protect” side; viewing it proactively and strategically.
Poor crisis response, for example, is almost guaranteed when Communications is not at the table as decisions are being made. If you don’t have an opportunity to weigh in, you and your team risk being left in the unenviable position of having to “explain” potentially poor decisions that will not withstand stakeholder scrutiny.
One action you can take now to demonstrate your strategic chops relative to crisis management would be to spearhead a plan for identifying and mitigating potentially damaging issues. In fact, how soon you learn of an issue is probably the single biggest determinant of a successful response.
You can start by doing the following:
- Develop a clear, fault free process for reporting bad news. Defining the what, how, when and to whom issues and events that have the potential to create significant reputational risk are identified and reported.
- Identify the right staff and process to “connects the dots”—crises never occur in isolation and it’s critical to analyze and assess the information in a broader context.
- Establish an open door policy and reputation for taking all concerns seriously – not just from students but from all stakeholders. There is a natural inclination to minimize or disbelieve bad news. Don’t.
As we all know, years of great brand building and marketing efforts can be undone in a matter of days by a poor response to a crisis. Managed well and a crisis can burnish an institution’s reputation and the quality and values of its leadership. Managed poorly, and the impacts are needlessly exacerbated.
Blue Moon Consulting Group works in collaboration with colleges and universities of all sizes, helping them prepare and respond to issue and crisis events. We’ve recently released two whitepapers on ways to effectively manage crisis in higher ed:
- Higher Education Crisis Management: A Proactive and Strategic Approach to Managing Reputational Risk
- Higher Education Leadership in Crisis: A Guide to Preparing for and Preventing a Crisis on Your Watch
- (Coming Soon) Higher Education Issues Management: Beyond Spin—Bridging the Gap Between Stakeholder Expectations and Decision Making
Available for download at: www.bluemoonconsultinggroup.com/highered.
As is frequently noted, the Chinese character for “crisis” is composed of two parts, one meaning “danger” and the other “opportunity.” Seize this opportunity and give both yourself and your school a fighting chance by getting out in front of a potential crisis.
Metaphorically speaking a blue moon is a very rare event. In reality, blue moons are highly predictable and occur more often than most people realize. Likewise, threats to an organization’s reputation are predictable, frequent and require a proactive management approach. Blue Moon Consulting Group provides its clients insight, counsel, and experience to help them effectively manage real-time response to significant issues and crisis events.
We also help organizations mitigate issues and avoid crises altogether through the development of proactive issues management programs, the enhancement of crisis management and communications plans, and by conducting training, exercises and leadership sessions. Our goal is to build an organizational culture in which reputation is viewed as a key asset and fundamental strategic input into decision-making.
CASE is currently accepting nominations for the 2017 SimpsonScarborough Scholars program. Established in 2008, the program honors our founding partner, Christopher Simpson, who passed away earlier that year. Well-known in higher education for media relations and crisis communications work, Christopher was strongly committed to serving as a mentor to young professionals. The SimpsonScarborough Scholars program continues Christopher’s legacy by supporting the professional development of promising candidates in higher education marcom. Visit the CASE website for complete details, including scholarship benefits, eligibility requirements and application instructions. The application deadline is Friday, November 18.
The digital revolution has redefined the relationship that exists between customers and brands. No longer a one-way flow of communication, brands must now engage and encourage interaction and honest dialogue, with digital, interactive experiences replacing many traditional in-person moments.
For higher ed marketers, this is particularly important because of the influx of Gen Z students who began enrolling in college in the 2015 academic year. In many ways, Gen Z, as digital natives, are leading the way to upend the traditional interactions and relationships that take place between brand and customer. Gen Z expects uber-like responses, seamless experiences, and error-free processes.
And while higher ed marketers have been quick to embrace emerging technology and meet students where they are, these changing dynamics and expectations have created a need and opportunity for higher ed brands to differentiate themselves by putting customer experience at the forefront.
Mobile first strategies and social media profiles are the norm at this point, but seamless, consistent online and digital experiences across an institution are increasingly becoming an expectation. From prospects to alumni, there are key moments – for example, online inquiries, applications, class registration, transcript requests – that are opportunities for dialogue and individual representations of your brand. Each provides an opportunity to reinforce brand value by delivering great customer and user experience.
It may be daunting to think about the infinite number of moments for engaging customers across their journeys and in various channels, but higher ed can begin to prioritize by identifying key audiences and understanding their preferred communication methods. Here’s a few from Gen Z that are well documented:
- On Demand: Chegg’s 2016 Social Admissions Report found that 53% of students expect a response within a day of contacting a college representative. I suspect a similar response time is also expected for inquiries such as campus visit requests and questions or complaints via social media. How can tools such as CRM and social listening software be used to rethink processes to ensure a timely, seamless experience and prompt response mechanisms?
- Personalized Content: Chegg found 93% of students agreed with the statement, “I would like to receive communication from college admissions tailored specifically to me.” Similarly, a report from eMarketer found that college students are “most likely to click on a social ad if it’s for something they care about or need—meaning, if it’s well targeted to their interests and relevant to their lives.” This applies not only to digital and print communication, but also to in-person experiences. Imagine how personalized and digital integrations can enhance the visitor center, the application process, or student services.
- Mobile First: 12% of respondents to Chegg’s study indicated they submitted a college application via their mobile device. Although it is widely understood that Gen Z’s digital experience is primarily mobile, 12% seems low, especially when you consider the number of students who may not have access to a regular computer or laptop. Mobile friendly websites are certainly an asset, but ensuring other important interactions such as virtual tours, application submission or the ability to chat with a college representative are optimized for mobile are important considerations.
Football season is around the corner, and while I could talk for hours about the ethical dilemmas surrounding football itself or oversized budgets of big time college athletics, I’ll instead share what higher ed marketers might learn from the gridiron.
Football is—at its core—the least expressive of any team sport. It’s quite simply about 11 players doing their individual jobs, following a detailed plan, and staying committed in the face of challenges or bumps in the road. The blocker must make his block. The receiver runs the route precisely as it’s designed. A runner hits the hole specified in the play. And the quarterback needs to read the defense (which is performing the same disciplined, individualized tasks) and make the play.
If you have talent and everyone does their job, you could wind up like, well, the University of Alabama (which has won three of the last five national titles).
While we like to think about higher education marketing as a creative and expressive endeavor (that is more fun, after all), the reality is that differentiation is a challenge in a sector where product offerings are so similar. Fundamentally, successful higher ed marketers realize the real keys to success are starting with a strong strategy and creating deep integration.
Or in football terms…the marketer (coach) needs to develop the strategy (game plan) that clearly has each tactic or marketing goal (player) focused on its job and successfully integrate (touchdown) despite barriers and challengers. The reasons integration and focus don’t occur more regularly aren’t necessarily new—budget, staffing, organizational, continuous change, new marketing tactics, overload of stakeholders to appease—but they aren’t impossible to overcome (or that unique to higher ed, as much as we’d like to think they are).
Being attentive to two key factors makes a big difference:
- Marketing your institution’s brand should not be done at the expense of marketing the products you deliver. Branding has taken such root in higher ed that there is more attention paid to the nascent experience or image than the product itself. We deliver advertising, branded content and storytelling, social posts, and more that delivers on a brand strategy or has some engagement value but operates at such a high, thematic level that our product marketing suffers or is under-supported. Don’t believe me? Take a look at your program or major/minor pages on your website. When it comes down to choices for prospective students or potential funders, they want to know what’s happening in a specific academic area, what the actual experience is like, if faculty are experts in their fields, and more. A peek at your web analytics will reveal your program pages are among the top-visited parts of your website. The flip of that is that program marketing needs to be integrated more fully to tie back to branding efforts. Why market a new major or academic program in a manner disconnected from institutional branding or broader strategies? And, done right, truly investing in building program and curricular awareness can ladder up to strengthening your brand overall. To return to the football analogy…the blocking and tackling done by your academic programs, and any marketing they are doing, is key to your team’s success.
- Marketing tactics should serve both brand and response marketing goals. In corporate settings, marketing usually includes (at minimum) brand, product, channel and partner marketing activity. Channels and tactics can be very distinct and different for each. As our marketing worlds have gotten more and more digitally-focused (and marketing budgets have followed), higher ed has had an interesting reaction. It appears that brand activity has remained primarily in traditional channels (cable television, industry trades and outdoor). And direct response—traditional student recruitment and enrollment in continuing, graduate, and professional programs—has moved to in-bound and digital channels. According to a recent study by Forrester, just 13% of marketers say they use programmatic digital ad buying for branding efforts. Conversely, 39% use it for direct response. But, as the report states, “programmatic buying is changing and becoming less about cheap impressions.” If higher ed marketers can operate in an integrated manner (which doesn’t have to necessarily equate to a mandated centralized organization), digital advertising and inbound strategies could serve both brand and program goals. And perhaps a more effective awareness strategy would be to invest even further in marketing your programs and degrees with direct, digital marketing that ladders up.
There just isn’t a tagline that can deliver the necessary detail required to drive choice. Successful integration is key.
Look to Samsung, the 2016 Cannes Lions International Marketer of the Year for inspiration. A company with as many products and services as Samsung (or GE or IBM or a college or university) can’t rest on a tagline. It’s integrated, strategic marketing across brand, product and channel that makes the difference.
Samsung has a strong, research-based brand strategy that centers on “helping people push the limits of life.” Then, whether creating an app to help children with autism maintain eye contact as a part of their “Launching People” campaign or driving sales through highlighting the detailed product (and personal) benefits of having a water-resistant phone (my favorite ad of the year) they stay true to the brand message.
So, back to the football analogy. There’s a reason offensive and defensive linemen dominate the first few rounds of the NFL draft every year. You win in the trenches with a lot of sweat and muscle.
Before you let out an exasperated sigh, I am not questioning the value of liberal arts – there are plenty of other sources that argue the “so what” well (i.e. the Phi Beta Kappa Society toolkit, CIC’s liberal arts research and data, etc.). Here’s what I want to ask: Who cares about liberal arts?
The short answer is plenty of people – especially those who work in higher ed. We know the term “liberal arts” is great shorthand for a long list of benefits. We know liberal arts encourages students to look at a problem from a variety of perspectives. We know liberal arts sets a student up a for a successful career. We know liberal arts prepares students for a variety of industries including those in science or technology. Unfortunately, the short answer ignores that prospective students don’t even know what liberal arts means.
In recent interviews with high school students, I cringed as I heard them say:
- “I’m liberal, so I want to go to a liberal arts college.”
- “I would like to attend a liberal arts college because I am really into the arts.”
- “I would like to take liberal arts courses, but I don’t want to major in it.”
I empathize with these high school students. I don’t know—and don’t care to know—anything about computer processors. But when I recently purchased a new laptop, I needed to understand why computer processors mattered to me. I followed steps similar to those of prospective students searching for a college. I looked at rating and reviews. I read computer geek blogs. I asked myself questions like: What is a processor? Why should I care about that? As I type this on my new laptop, I have to admit that I still cannot tell you the difference between an Intel Core M or Intel Core i7—and please don’t ask me to describe the value of a processor. I would probably make a computer professional cringe.
Looking back, I appreciate that computer companies made it easy for me to purchase a laptop without understanding their jargon. Best Buy started off with questions like what is most important in your next laptop?. Lenovo let me sort by usage (high performance, students, home office, small business, entertainment, or gaming). Apple gave me fun quick descriptions: “Light. Years ahead”; “More power behind every pixel”; or “All the power you want. All day long.” I didn’t see any mention of processors at the beginning of my search. I only found those terms as I moved further into my search process.
I want to challenge you to take a page out of the laptop companies’ marketing book. Don’t ban the term liberal arts from communications or give up the campaign for liberal arts. Computer companies still explain the types of processor, and Intel still has prevalent marketing campaigns demonstrating how their products create “amazing human experiences.” Rather, start the conversation by communicating what makes your institution distinct and the benefits of your educational experience. Explain how prospective students will take a wide range of classes allowing them to solve complex problems. Show them how your alumni have successful careers in a variety of industries. Talk to students in the terminology they care about and save the confusing language for later.