Archive for April, 2011

Not too long ago I got a phone call from a reporter asking what I thought about a university president who took a strong public stand on the issue of hate speech.  His statement drew responses from those who agreed with him, but it also drew what seemed to be even stronger criticism from those who believe that freedom of speech in our country applies to all forms of speech, especially in the academy. As a strategic communication and marketing professional, I tried to explain to this reporter how I would make my decision regarding giving advice.

First of all, a CEO must begin with the premise that his or her primary responsibility is to advance the integrity and interests of the whole institution. An academic institution clearly exists fundamentally as a forum for the exploration of all sides of issues, but can the president taking a stand on one issue affect the basic health and well-being of the institution? 

In the case of hate speech, would it be better to make a general observation about the possible dangers of such speech, and then just ask others to seriously consider the possible consequences? Or, would it be better to deny making a comment, suggesting that it is not proper for an institutional leader to offer comments on such issues?

It’s true, I could advise to always take the position that it’s safer to keep the president out of controversies like this, and to leave the entire debate to others.  But, then, occasionally I have encountered presidents who saw their leadership role as being able to bring visibility and long-term recognition to the institution by stepping out with strong personal views, and staying visibly engaged.

As with so many other kinds of judgements that communication advisors are called upon to make, I found my answer here to be: It depends! It depends on the established culture of the institution measured against the natural inclinations and style of its current leader. If the institution’s culture and values embrace taking stands on issues, and the CEO is comfortable getting engaged in ongoing public dialogue, then ultimate long-term good can result.  But, the institutional mission, brand, and leadership style must clearly embrace the decision. 

On the other hand, if the institution is more traditionally academic, and the president is hesitant about stepping out personally, it is never wise to push getting engaged in controversy.  Making one bold statement, and then backing off, is never an option.  Once you step into a debate, you are in it for as long as the issue remains hot.

For some institutional leaders, getting involved might depend on the nature and volatility of each issue.  Hate speech is one thing, but stepping out as an advocate for international human rights, or taking the lead in advocating new forms of clean energy, can be seen as a totally different situation. 

In the final analysis, communication advice in a controversy must be appropriate to the culture of each institution and how each president sees the CEO role. Sometimes my best approach was merely to conduct a thorough pros and cons analysis, and then let the CEO make the final call based on what he or she felt compelled to do. Sometimes the bottom line is that you can’t ignore the sincere instincts and passion of an informed and dynamic leader.

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Early in my academic career I had a student remark: “I don’t think I ever met a ‘broadcast philosopher’ before!”  I was teaching a television production course and I had just handed out a library reading list.  Another student quickly protested: “We don’t expect to have reading requirements in production courses!”

What the students didn’t know was that my undergraduate education was heavy in the liberal arts. I took courses in pyschology, history, international affairs, as well as communications. I always saw media studies as grounded in the world of ideas. I could not imagine producing television programs without a thorough understanding of the nature of the medium, and a familiarity with those who were studying the affects of television on society and individuals. While I eventually knew I would want to study communication in graduate school, especially international communication, I ended my undergraduate days with a degree in philosophy… and have been forever grateful.

Philosophy teaches you to question assumptions.  It reqires each student to organize ideas and facts into systems of thought. And its’ immersion in the world of ideas inevitably results in a healthy skepticism… an extremely valuable world-view for a professional communicator.

Philosophy teaches how to use logic. It confronts you with the ethical implications of your thoughts, and requires you to clarify your overall values. It plunges you into the world of the history of ideas, and shows you how intellectuals and whole civilizations made decisions over the centuries.  You discover that there is little that is new, and there are serious lessons to be learned from those who came before.  You see how civilizations thrived, and you see how they failed!

As my career moved on, the philsospher in me has remained.  Now that I focus on how to make organizaations work more effectively, I begin all presentations, and most of my writing, with the assertion: “Marketing is a way of thinking.”  I firmly believe that all communication begins with carefully developed ideas. The more informed they are, the more effective they will be. Problem-solving is a complex undertaking, and first attempts usually must be adjusted along the way.  One thing is certain:  simplistic ideology is dangerous for the survival of a society. That is a lesson of history.

All of this came to me again this week as I continued to reflect on the wonderful meeting I had last week with some private university presidents.  Most of their institutions are liberal arts-based, and much of our conversation was about the potential consequences of our current focus on “practical” career preparation. What could get lost is the “practical” understanding and skills taught in the liberal arts. It renewed my commitment to persist with my belief that effective professional communication must begin with solid thinking and informed ideas. 

 God bless the philosophers, and the humility they teach us.

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This week I had the pleasure of spending some time with a group of private college and university presidents. Items on our agenda included current trends in news media relations, increasing government regulations, and the marketing and communication implications of the dramatic changes coming in our industry.

“Talking points,” described last week in Lesson 55, guided our conversation about market changes. I explained my observations about the changing role of governments, and that I feared that many of the current cutbacks in financial support will become permanent. We talked about how tuition increases in the public sector will change competitive dynamics, and how more and more reliance will be put on private fund-raising at both private and public institutions. On top of all that, we discussed how our industry is now facing increased competition for money, students, and reputation from institutions in Canada, the UK, Europe, India, China, Singapore, Australia and more.

For me, all this added up to the basic question: What kind of leader will we  need to pilot us through all of these “sea-changes?”

What interested me most at this meeting was that some of the smaller private university presidents were already demonstrating a new level of thinking about the future.  Many already had some depth of experience in conducting programs and developing partnerships in other countries, and at least one president was open to exploring partnerships with for-profit universities!

What’s more, these “new breed” presidents did not sound like traditional intellectuals or scholars. Rather, they were thinking about imaginative ways to bring distinction to their institutions, and how they would deal with increasing public concerns about college costs and the globalization of economies. In other words, this week it became even more clear to me that the future of higher education will be characterized by the emergence of a creative-thinking, marketing-oriented, new kind of educational entrepreneur.

As I reflected on all this, I realized that we were also only talking about becoming much more sophisticated at implementing basic marketing ideas. We were not talking about avant-garde thinking, rather we were simply underscoring a renewed importance of practicing basic integrated approaches to marketing. We were putting even more emphasis on defining differentiated strengths, and getting everyone “on-the-same-page” with respect to telling the story. The presidents stressed the practicality of the liberal arts in a career-education oriented world. And we amplified the even greater importance of selecting appropriate target markets in the US and abroad, as well as the strong need to master the use of multi-platform, interactive, communication tools. 

Staying successful in this dramatically changing, ever more international, market, is indeed within the reach of even the smallest private college or organization. The key will be having enlightened, marketing-oriented, leadership, with the necessary advancement talent and counsel close at  hand.

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This past week has involved me in deep discussions about the dramatically changing higher education marketplace.  As I will be engaged in more conversations this coming week, I have made a list of “talking points.” Here is what I have so far:

1. Legislatures all over the United States are cutting back their funding, and many people think this trend is permanent; 2. As a result, public institutions are raising tuition, a situation which will alter the dynamics of the entire market; 3. Private institutions receive public funds for research and financial aid, all of which is also being cut back; 4. The public-private “dual system” of higher education is blurring, with many publics threatening to become private; Some already receive as little as 8% of their support from their states.

While all this is taking place in the U.S., our entire industry is at the same time becoming international… a dynamic that is changing the marketplace even more. So I add these points to my list:

1. Many governments around the world are cutting overall support as well, while others are investing heavily, and selectively; 2. Some of these focus on science and technology superiority; 3 Others focus on great student access and career education, (many think to the detriment of the liberal arts); 4. A few others only support a handful of institutions with a single goal of scoring high in world rankings;  5. World rankings focus almost exclusively on research and publishing, penalizing smaller high quality institutions; 6. For-profit institutions are expanding in the U.S. and abroad, gaining more market share and further changing enrollment dynamics.

All this is bringing university advancement more front and center, and changing the way this profession works.  So I add these talking points as well:

1. Fund raising is becoming a truly international endeavor, with foreign development officers coming more often to the U.S, and vice versa; 2. Student migration is shifting, bringing more student recruiters from other countries to U.S. high schools; 3. Faculty positions are becoming more international in their mobility and travel expectations; 4. Institutions are seeking more international students in order to provide a more global campus experience; 5. Finding global partners, and expanding student international experiences, is becoming a major focus of more and more administrations.

All of these forces are coming upon us simultaneously, producing the “sea change” we are experiencing. These changes are bringing new opportunities for  advancement professionals, but they also bring huge new demands and challenges.  Hopefully addressing these talking points will also provide a guide for our professional development as we prepare ourselves to help lead the way.

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Now that we are halfway through the legislative session, developments in Austin are reminding me of how rumors are rampant everywhere. We live with them in organizations, and we are now dealing with them in the Texas legislature. What makes it so complicated is that they are sometimes only a consequence of the natural communication process; other times they are unethically manufactured.

The House bill in Texas dealing with the need-based financial aid program for private institutions calls for a 41% cut from current appropriations. Some will tell you that this is the way it will come out in the end.  However, we are now hearing from some on the Senate side that the final cut will be no more than 25%.  Still others say any cuts will be for only one year, and by the end of the summer, will be restored for the second year. Each unofficial source has his or her own story to tell.  So, are these rumors natural, or manufactured?  

I am reminded of the exercise I sometimes do in one of my classes where I whisper a message to one student, and then ask that it be passed from one person to another around the class.  When the last  person hears the  message I ask that it be repeated out loud to the entire class.  It’s always amazing how much messages change.  Sometimes they in no way resemble the original statement.

Communication experts often explain how rumors are a natural part of the communication process, and therefore cannot be avoided.  Natural rumors  actually develop in three steps: 1)  listeners can remember only a portion of  each message, and they always select the portion based on their individual special interests; 2) in retelling a message, the portion they remember is automatically given  additional personal emphasis; and,  3) additional thoughts are then added from the communicator’s personal experience.  A message will often significantly change with only one retelling.  But, when retold many times, it can become  a whole new message.  These rumors are both innocent, and natural. 

However, in today’s competitive world, both in organizations and in society, rumors are often used as ruthless strategic tools. They are  consciously manufactured, and relentlessly repeated. The belief is that if they are repeated often enough, they will eventually be seen as true, i.e. “Obama was not born in the U.S.”  Those that recognize what is happening often just drop out of participation from disgust, leaving extremists to win elections and manage our affairs. As professional communicators, we cannot accept this situation as mere clever competition. Rather it is unethical behavior, and in time it will totally undermine the effectiveness and integrity of our profession.

We must, therefore, challenge institutional leaders, politicians, and  practitioners who have adopted questionable communication tactics. The only professional response to rumors, natural or manufactured, is the formulation of truthful, simple messages. These then can be  repeated using interactive tools and tactics selected for each audience. When a rumor is identified upfront, and then followed by a thoughtful statement, the rumor can be bypassed and legitimate communication restored.  We know this approach works in organizations, and we must now make it work in today’s socially destructive political environments.

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