Archive for May, 2011

In preparation for a presentation I will be making in Australia, I have been reviewing some current university marketing materials. I was reminded that not too long ago, we could not even utter the word “marketing” on some campuses. Now, it can be quite striking to see how far some institutions have come.  In fact, I actually found myself asking: Have some of my professional colleagues gone too far?

Cute tag-lines with little content or substance abound. My contention all along has been that no tag-line is better than just a cute one. Cute gets old fast, every time! Tag-lines must connect so well to an institution’s mission that they cleverly sum-up the true essence of the place. Otherwise, they serve no real purpose. Some institutions are using athletic mascots in their advertising to symbolically stand for the entire institution. But here I found myself asking: Is this the best symbol for the institution’s long-term academic reputation building?  Others are using design so trendy that it’s difficult to see how their materials accurately represent their institution’s mission and vision.

Dont get me wrong. Especially in this digital world, I do believe we need to “look” innovative. In order to connect with our audiences we must be able to demonstrate a state-of-the-art understanding of technology, and of our constituents’ needs and interests. But the question for the academy remains:  How do we do that and still represent the traditions and substance and what academic work is really all about?

We are advancing an industry with significant historical relevance. There is nothing else in society quite like the academy. It’s traditions of academic freedom and constructive debate require continuing explanation. It remains the custodian of the lessons of history and the best thinking of mankind. Indeed, reminding each generation of the very definition of  a fully “educated person,” is also our ongoing challenge. 

All of this today certainly does require a measure of  innovation. The first chancellor I would work  with on meeting this challenge would often say to me:  OK, Lauer, we will try this idea, but not that one!”  I often felt I was being held back. But now I appreciate what I learned from that struggle to fully explain what I was trying to do.

Maintaining the heritage of this entire academic enterprise will require a certain amount of elegance. We must find a way to “look” imaginative and creative without  going over-the-top. This is why I now argue that we must adapt the profession of marketing to the academy. We are not selling an academic shopping center.  What we do must begin as a “way of thinking.” and not end up as a road to commercialization.

We need to connect with our constituents where they are, no doubt about it. But, then we must go on to take them to a better understanding of this wonderful world of ideas, and the unique role our institution intends to play in it. Honest communication that is more imaginative than cute should be the rule of the day.  Simply put, to be true to our heritage our marketing must be “appropriate.”

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Observing legislatures in action this Spring has bordered on being depressing. Whatever happened to mutual respect, appreciation for other points of view, simple human tolerance, and just plain good manners? Why can’t we see that this mean-spirited political environment we have created is tearing our society apart?

In the Texas legislature, the eleventh hour of the 2011 session is playing out with every tactical trick in the book being used. Extremists are determined to go to any length to get the most extreme views enacted into law.  Amendments, points of order, and angry rhetoric rings on into the night. And when bills go to Conference Committees to resolve conflicts, the meetings are in total secret, and its’ members are completely unavailable.  What kind of system is this? 

Endless state and federal bills have been passed to make certain that institutions like ours operate transparently with the public.  But, more and more, lawmakers do their own “sausage-making”  in secret, out of touch with the rest of us, and representing only the extreme among us.

In Washington, the situation is much the same.  Extreme positions on how to manage the budget deficit fight are argued without a sign of tolerance, or human decency. This is not communication, it’s warfare!  And when members meet among themselves, they do so out of sight to those of us roaming the halls looking for just a slight clue that reasonable bi-partisan deliberation is going on somewhere. Then, when they speak publicly, the talk is polarizing. And even though their office staffs often sound thoughtful, there is no way to tell what is actually going on in this daily world of contradictions.

Those few people left in public service who came there to be true statesmen, are now just lying low.  One member, who a year ago was accessible to me, and willing to support reasonable requests, now does not answer my emails. She never is available for a visit, and instead always asks a staff member to meet with me… who then just sits there nodding sympathetically in response to anything I say.

In all my years of working in communication and marketing, I have always been able to get some sense of how well I was doing.  Even with the many surprises inherent in this competitive business, I was always able to get information along the way that would confirm success or failure.  In the world of government relations these days, however, there is no way to tell how well you are doing. Just when you think you have achieved something, a last-minute maneuver, or mean-spirited communication tactic, wipes it all away.

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My belief that international higher education is the purest form of public diplomacy has been discussed in previous blogs. This week I have been engaged in conversations about how higher education is also an economic development tool.  It is especially exciting for me to see how an industry I have such passion for has the potential to play a major role in helping people from different cultures understand each other, as well as to help develop the economies of underdeveloped societies.

Higher education for development (often referred to at HED) recognizes that to develop stagnant economies requires resources and institutions that can train a relevant workforce and educate leaders capable of building a new day out of current realities. This capability is not only a component of economic development, but it is an absolutely fundamental activity to achieving success.

The American Council on Education (ACE) has long-established expertise in doing this kind of work in Africa, parts of South America, Mexico, the Middle East and elsewhere. Its’ experience in this very specialized work can now assist other similar projects.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is currently exploring higher education as a central component of a new project in economic development.  CSIS developed the “smart power” ideas that recently influenced new diplomatic thinking at the U. S. Department of State. This non-partisan think tank is now following up the Smart Power project by considering a new one to help solve economic problems in the underdeveloped world, and it is clear that higher education will be a key component. It is also clear that higher education, with all its’  human and economic development potential, has a critical role to play in enhancing national security… a basic concern underlying all projects at CSIS.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is also completing a project to design a business plan for an independent organization that would do public diplomacy for the U.S.  This is being proposed as a public-private partnership and would involve higher education in many of its’ activities.  One of the ideas in the study is to work with university students and utilize new media as a cross-border relationship-building tool. Such a tool would enhance understanding between cultures, provide hope and support for freedom-loving people in closed societies, and could also support the economic development projects of other organizations.

I have experienced the magic of what happens when students and teachers come together from different parts of the world. They rarely are polarized by their differences. Rather, they immediately become interested in learning about cultures, customs, values, languages,  and histories. Even when these learner-travelers are from countries where their governments are in conflict, mutual respect and lasting friendships almost always are the outcome.

Applied to the current economic problems in the US, we must certainly come to see that education, including higher education, is the most important tool we have for economic development and for bringing cultures and differing ideas together. From training a new workforce  for a changing society, to educating the entrepreneurs that will develop new small and large businesses, education is the only sure way to grow the economy. It is absolutely absurd to think that wholesale budget cuts that put thousands of teachers out of work, and also denies thousands of students the financial aid they need, will create new jobs and grow the economy. Most certainly, there are places to cut fat from federal and state budgets. But those who have benefited from past financial success, and now have the means to help, must now come to see that finding new revenue is also essential to preserving the most powerful economic development tool we have… the American systems of K through 12, and higher education.  

What we understand and preach to the rest of the world about the power of education to develop economies, train needed workers, and educate innovative leaders, we now desperately need to apply to our own problem solving. And, of course, professional strategic communication and integrated marketing are fundamental to all of this… to public diplomacy, to HED, and to applying their lessons at home.

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What do you do when someone issues a public criticism of your institution, or a one-sided negative opinion appears in the news media? I must admit that recent changes in the political environment, as well as the practices of 24-7 cable news channels, have altered my thinking.

Formerly, l almost always counseled colleagues to not respond.  My belief was that to do so only added fuel to the situation and challenged the critic to respond again.  All too often, a well-intentioned correction was counter-productive and only intensified the controversy.  Rather, with no response at all, the matter was usually forgotten.

But today, in a media climate of sour, mean-spirited polarization, the dynamic appears to be much different. An un-rebutted charge is likely to be made again and again, and ultimately an untruth can gain acceptance as fact.  If it is continually repeated that the new health care legislation creates “death panels,” all too many people eventually come to believe it is true.  It’s a maddening reality of this “new media,” passion-dominated, breaking news-crazy world.

All this is to say I have been forced to change my thinking about responding to vicious charges.

First, I still would consider not responding.  It’s possible that some charges will still go away if left unchallenged. That depends, however, entirely on the intensity of the intentions of the source of the charge. These days, the background and overall purposes of the source must be studied and understood each time a criticism is made.

If the source is determined to be highly motivated, or a member of an organized initiative, there is no choice in today’s media climate: you will have  to be prepared to deliver a carefully shaped, and intense, reply. You will do well to devise a comprehensive communication plan that features simple talking points, carefully chosen multi-media channels, and a focus on your most significant target markets. This is especially important if an un-rebutted initial charge is made a second time.

It is very important to always shape your statement around simple talking points, and never get off on tangents or side stories.  Make sure to always stay on message. Plan to deliver the statement with equal or greater intensity as your adversary, and be ready to sustain the public conversation for the long-term.

One final observation: The dynamics of grassroots politics will likely apply. Sadly, you will have to settle for not pleasing everyone.  If the message is skillfully crafted your supporters will begin a word-of-mouth, positive response. But, you will also have to accept that your adversaries will remain adversaries,  and while some neutrals will come with you, others will not.  The new reality of this polarized world is that it is better to rally your troops than to suffer the humiliation of being labeled as ineffective, or even disappointing, to your most important constituents.

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