As Universities Evolve, So Must University Communications

Universities have always been a breeding ground for activism on society’s inequalities. But today, as the national opprobrium intensifies, higher education campuses are seeing this play out more intensely. As a result, university leaders and chief communicators must continually look at existing communications strategies, and how new higher education dynamics may impact those strategies for the upcoming school year and beyond.

For starters, as educational institutions, they are many things to many people – career developers, repositories of intellectual capital, research incubators, major employers, social communities, symbols of civic pride, and so much more.

Perhaps to help fund that complexity and fuel that diversity, universities are being forced to adapt to financial models that are less reliant on government support and more dependent on tuition, endowments, investments, donations and more. As a result, universities now face pressures from all angles, requiring communicators to adapt quickly and take on more responsibility with fewer resources.

Here are a few tips for university communicators to keep up with this changing model:

1. Prepare NOW for the inevitable crisis.
Highly emotional issues are dividing our country and campuses, leading to protests and demonstrations at universities nationwide. Compounding those tensions, human relations risks are at an all-time high, including mental health problems, suicide rates and violence among university students, as well as allegations of harassment, discrimination, retaliation and sexual misconduct among employees and students. These issues make universities more vulnerable than ever to major flashpoints that can significantly impact reputation. It is critical for university leadership and communications to make issues and crisis management a top priority – ensuring that structures, protocols and processes are in place for monitoring, risk assessment, notifications and action steps. In addition, regular training and drills are essential to strengthening a university’s capability to protect its reputation when faced with a crisis.

2. Replace communications silos with cross-campus collaboration.
Although communications needs expand, many communications teams are shrinking due to budget restraints. This calls for creativity and agility in responding to increasing demands, while ensuring alignment of message and purpose across the university. Communications teams can bridge these connections by creating a “communications cabinet” that represents various departments, allowing the central team to develop a “freedom within a framework” approach. This ensures consistency while enabling individual departments to have the freedom to adjust tactics and tone. Regular communications cabinet meetings are an opportunity for alignment on strategic priorities and protocols while brainstorming approaches for likely issues/crisis communications scenarios.

3. Marketing and communications teams must collaborate.
While the responsibilities of university communications teams are expanding, so too are those of its marketing teams. Marketers are under more pressure to reach enrollment goals, compete with alternative higher education institutions that are cutting into market share, and defend the value of traditional college degrees. As demands expand, university leadership must insist on marketing/communications alignment for brand building and reputation protection.

4. Adapt to the changing influence of university stakeholders – students, their families, alumni, faculty, staff and the local community.
The number of stakeholders to which universities are accountable is vast, and their interests are diverse. It is critical that communicators adapt to the changing influence and interests of these groups. For example, while most states are cutting university funding, they are also demanding greater transparency and accountability from universities on how they are utilizing that funding. Communications teams can support those demands by proactively pitching stories on how universities are utilizing funding to create initiatives that benefit taxpayers. Similarly, a stronger reliance on donations and investments means the financial goals of groups like Donor Relations and Alumni Affairs are escalating. Universities must ensure these groups have adequate communications capabilities and that their efforts strategically align with and support overall reputation efforts.

5. Understand the pros and cons of social media.
In a university setting, social media has become a critically important tool for reputation management and marketing. Today’s generation of students may never visit a university’s website, but they will regularly connect with their school through Twitter, Facebook and other social sites. Social media provides universities with platforms for posting engaging content that tells its story, supports integrated branding campaigns and enables relevant dialogue with students and other stakeholders. When it comes to reputation management and addressing negative dialogue, speed is essential. Communications teams must adapt to the pace and nuances of social media by actively listening for trends, sharing relevant in-the-moment content, responding to negative or inaccurate inquiries and comments, and managing crises and issues.

6. Consider engaging independent experts to assess your risks.
Using unbiased third-parties to validate and enhance the policies, procedures and practices that an institution has put in place to address risks conveys a strong message of transparency and trust to stakeholders and the public. When a crisis does occur, it is much more effective to have an independent assessment to demonstrate that the university is committed to protecting all of its stakeholders’ best interests.

Any questions? Reach out or leave a comment below!

About Katherine Mackey

Katherine is a Senior Issues & Crisis Specialist within Ketchum South.

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