Archive for July, 2011

This week I had the pleasure of attending a really productive retreat.  It made me think about all the others I attended over the years that seemed to be a total waste of time. I found myself reflecting on what made them so ineffective.

First, the agenda was “off the mark.”  It usually was the product of an individual’s thoughts about what would be both enlightening and fun.  The result was an “ice-breaker” activity” followed by each person giving a report of divisional activities.  At the end of the day, it all just felt unproductive. No one’s “top-of-the-mind” concerns were adequately addressed. 

When attendees are asked ahead of time for their big concerns, the list usually contains a combination of current urgent issues and longer range worries.  And when a retreat is designed to address the most important of these, it will be headed to a grand and most productive conclusion…even without the ice-breaker exercise.

Second, a retreat can go off track when essential people are not there.  All too often the discussion will take off in a direction that really requires the participation of absent experts.  Many times the talk proceeds, nonetheless. When all is said and done, however, nothing gets decided… or even worse, decisions are made that must be changed later. It’s critical, then, to examine the agenda ahead of time and make sure essential players are there…even if it’s just for the time their issue is discussed.

Third, a retreat can be a waste of time when the attendees do not feel free to be open or honest, or when they are mostly competing for attention or resources.  This is a problem that is not easily resolved. It usually is the result of how groups have interacted with each other in the past. I have been a part of executive groups where this kind of culture was cultivated by a CEO who enjoyed watching his direct reports try to out-shine each other. While this management style might appear to be effective at first, it really results in a dysfunctional team when it comes to effective institutional problem-solving and planning.

Fourth, a personal fear of truly open communication can paralyze many participants.  This emotion derives from a strong desire to avoid conflict or hostility, or from not wanting to end up looking uninformed, or even stupid.  The truth is that open communication clarifies issues, uncovers creative solutions, and identifies barriers to progress that can now be openly addressed.

All four of these reasons why retreats fail should  be addressed at the outset as a part of a general orientation to the day.  First, explain that the agenda came from surveying the concerns of participants.  Then, make sure everyone knows that the essential experts are there, or will be there to discuss specific issues.  And, finally, make sure everyone understands that all participants  are expected to speak their minds openly, and are promised immunity from all retribution later on.   On this matter: “What happens at the retreat, stays at the retreat.”

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This week I met with a group of boarding school advancement professionals to discuss integrated marketing. I had been looking forward to it because I have become acutely aware of how these schools are facing some of the same competitive and global forces that are facing universities.  Indeed, we all are a part of the same education industry, and greater connection and collaboration between us no doubt will benefit everyone.

These schools come in many types and sizes–smaller, with few staff and other resources, and larger with more of each. Universities come in many varieties as well.  So my presentation premise was that I could cover virtually the same material I do with universities, and that these independent school professionals would be able to adapt  the basic concepts  to  each of their specific situations.

I presented basic ideas about the importance of a clear brand identity, and the need to clarify competitive advantage. I talked about why specific markets must be targeted using each one’s preferred media.  We then discussed how using multiple tactics simultaneously would “converge” on each market target and cut through mass media clutter.  We explored how group process can be used to get supporters inside and out “on the same message page,” and why leaders at all levels must “walk-the-talk” to inspire word-of-mouth support and establish a positive image.

Reflecting on my premise, as well as on my meeting this week, I must say that I believe more than ever that most any kind of organization will find that an integrated approach to marketing is the most effective  pathway they can choose to long-term, sustained institutional advancement.

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Circumstances this week caused me to reflect on what I have learned about leading and managing the work of creative professionals. I recalled strong feelings of fear that my peer colleagues might not like what my staff just produced, and would think less of me. Or, important trustees, or donors, or community leaders, might react badly to what they saw, and that my professional judgment would come under question.  Getting comfortable with executive level marketing and communication pressures takes time.

I learned the hard way that creative people cannot be micro-managed.  To do this turns off their creativity, and renders them unproductive.  Likewise, if they work without guidelines, the result will be no results at all.  So, what should you do?

First, you should establish a creative team-building process up front that clarifies general expectations and guidelines. Second, you must accept the challenge of constantly educating your colleagues and target audiences about how your profession achieves long-term results. 

You can give editors and writers a set of branding themes that you want reinforced in feature stories over time.  You can also ask them to give you a heads-up on anything controversial so you can collaborate in advance on “approaches” to the story.  In this way, you build a relationship based on respect.   Then, you should not feel a strong need to edit the editor’s or writer’s work.  Glitches will occur, but even those that seem major will have minor long-term effect.

You should give artists plenty of information about each piece’s communication objective, as well as known expectations of intended audiences. This should be done long before they ever sit down at the computer.  Good designers can then come up with good ideas to consider.  If they start to design too soon, their work inevitably will be off the mark, and not effective.     

You should identify what communication materials exist primarily to promote only positive stories and people. These are referred to as “vanity” publications.  And you should also identify those that require journalistic integrity in order to establish broad audience credibility… usually this list includes the university magazine. It’s important for these audiences to understand that they might not always like what the writer reports, but credibility only comes with a measure of editorial independence.

It is not easy to manage creative professionals. It is not the same as managing a group of office workers. It requires leading by making expectations and guidelines clear in advance, by supporting and explaining the work of creative writers and artists, and by educating colleagues and important audiences on why you go about your work the way you do.

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I recently returned from a visit to the University of Queensland in Australia convinced that internationalization will be the next big issue in higher education marketing. So it was a bit surprising to me to see some recent U.S. market research indicating that it was not a topic of major concern to presidents and other institutional leaders. Understandably, issues such as budgeting, finance, fund-raising, best practices, and public policy, were mentioned… and strategic planning was the topic most often named. But internationalization was missing from the list.

So it seems strategic planning, not internationalization, will be the hot topic of the near future. University leaders will be focused on how to reposition institutions in light of reduced government funding, the need to raise fees, and a whole new focus on private philanthropy. In other words, their primary concern will be dealing with immediate economic threats to their core business, and marketing professional will have to respond.

Effective marketing leadership requires connecting with our presidents and academic colleagues  by responding to their most urgently perceived needs.  But then, we must also take them from where they are to an understanding of the other factors that must be considered to stay competitive. And here I have no doubt that  understanding the competitive consequences of internationalization will be one of those extremely significant factors.

Institutions all over the world are rethinking their strategic plans, not just in the U.S.  And it is clear that their plans include finding students, money, and building reputation in new places, including the United States.  International competition, therefore, will be a must consideration in every institution’s strategic planning process, and this is especially relevant today when institutions’ traditional financial bases are threatened.

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I found myself once again this week  in a conversation about my work being either about  “spinning” or “covering up.”  The assumption is that we in marketing and communication either are promoting unreal ideals, or covering up some awful truth. This gets really tiring after a while. And what makes it even worse is that I usually respond with a not very diplomatic, or persuasive, “Come on…you must know truth is my business!”   Not persuasive, I say, because this snide remark always only produces a sarcastic chuckle.

When I reflect on the times I have dealt with sensitive issues or crises my recollection is that my aim always was to determine the essential facts, identify what we were going to do, and then communicate all this as clearly and as soon as possible.  But, if it was a hot issue, or a serious crisis, aggressive reporters would often look for what seemed like needless details, or side stories, or go for privacy invading interviews, all with the purpose of keeping the story hot, selling more papers, or attracting more viewers. What’s more, I also often found myself saying,  “All we want is to get the facts of the story told clearly, including what we intend to do, and then move on.”  To me, truth really is my business, but today’s 24-7, high-speed news actually makes it extremely difficult to accomplish.

In the cases where I am in the role of advancing brand identity or institutional programs, I also know that only truth has credibility. Stretching it too far will be counter-productive.  But here I must admit that we face the dilemma of  “the self-fulfilling prophecy.”  We know in marketing that if we can use language to insprire, but clearly stay within the boundaries of truth, that people in institutions will stretch to achieve even more. That is using the power of strategic communication to help move organizations forward.  

But, those who stretch the truth too far give us all a bad name. Therefore, we need to become better critics of our profession, or the public will never understand the greater good that we do… and we will always have the title, “Spin Doctor,” inserted after our name.

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