Archive for September, 2011

A higher education colleague and I were recently enjoying a Texas Rangers baseball game when he suddenly said: “Wouldn’t it be great for a university to do a series of symphony concerts in this wonderful ballpark?”  His remark reminded me of how imaginative fine arts and cultural programs and projects staged in unusual locations can make a major impact on the quality of life in a city… and at the same time, broaden and enhance an academic institution’s brand identity.

A few days later I was reading the blog of the CEO of the University of Warwick in the UK. In it he expressed great  surprise that more universities do not use their strengths in arts and letters to influence the cultural life of their communities in creative ways. This is surprising to me too, especially when doing so always uplifts an institution’s  stature and can dramatically expand its financial and word-of-mouth support.

The blogger gave several examples by referencing an artist’s “sound installation” in a London railroad station sponsored by a local university, a Shakespeare drama troupe that wonders from site to site around the city, a high visibility creative writing project led by a famous poet at his own university, and even a prestigious institution’s internet listing of “must read” books!

We in institutional marketing and communication are sometimes satisfied to promote the programs that others routinely offer. But far more often we should actually be taking the initiative to generate new ideas and big projects that are guaranteed to significantly enrich our communities. Such activities always enhance our brand, and are well worth our creative talents, time and effort. 

Of course, what we can effectively do in our cities must always be defined by seeing our particular strengths in the context of the particular character and culture of the community around us. But make no mistake, we will always benefit when we help develop special projects that clearly connect to those cultural features most treasured by our fellow citizens.

After all, marketing is much more than promoting programs already in place. It is about seeing how product, exchange of values, distribution, and promotion operate together.  And so we must always assume that our role is to help shape  innovative new “products” (or projects) that grow from our deep-rooted institutional strengths and connect to deep-rooted external strengths and organizations. 

We call this kind of strategic thinking and planning, “leveraging.”  And it is simply the art of seeing how an academic institution and its community can combine compatible strengths to broaden, clarify, and raise the visibility of, both brand identities in the world.

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In recent years, I have been adapting the lessons I have learned in my marketing and communication work to the bewildering world of legislative advocacy. My focus has been on helping advance higher education and nonprofits, and  it has been quite an adventure. 

I thought it reasonable to think that a certain amount of government regulation was needed to keep greedy speculators on Wall Street from ruining our main street economy, or to deter out-of-control bankers from being totally self-serving. or to prevent manipulators from using non-profits to hide questionable business practices, or to keep less than  competent educational administrators from misusing funds. But in this hopelessly polarized society, it seems all I encountered were the most extreme political ideologies and solutions.

In my immediate world of higher education I was willing to support essential regulation focused only on very specific  situations and people. Beyond that, I thought that it might be possible for an enlightened government to focus on providing financial and other positive incentives to stimulate informed and creative ideas to improve teaching and research.

From my 45 years as a teacher, it really did seem apparent that individual institutions and students have specific talents and special needs. In other words, I naively thought it should be possible to convince educated government officials that finding and supporting talent, and institution-specific solutions, is far more effective than centralized controls  that assume everyone can learn the same material  in the same way.

Instead, I found even more centralized controls and regulations than I imagined, along with a disturbing commitment to increase them.  Even new administrations that I thought would be somewhat enlightened, are not. To punish the guilty, they punish everyone.  As a result, all institutions have had to add staff and money to comply with endless pages of detailed regulations, and any goal to keep costs and tuition low has been rendered almost impossible to reach.

I will still concede that limited regulation is sometimes necessary. On top of that, however, we desperately need mutually respectful dialogue between “trench-experienced” teachers, administrators, and enlightened legislators. But to make this even feasible, we must first end this mean-spirited, polarized, and destructive argumentation that is tearing our country apart.

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Once in a while those of us who work in the field of strategic communication must stop and remind ourselves that we do not ever really send complete messages to audiences.  Rather, we make a “sign,” or “noise,” that pulls a previously established meaning out of each person’s brain.

For example, when I say the word “dog” I am only making a funny noise. The receiver attributes  a meaning to that “noise” out of  prior experience. For dog lovers, that noise will bring a pleasant impression. For those who see dogs as dirty animals, or threatening to their safety, it will be a negative impression.  One of my students offered: “For me today, that word reminds me of a bad date I had last night.”

It is a bit depressing sometimes to realize that each and  every word we use is processed in this way by each individual.  Therefore, it is only where our experiences completely overlap that effective communication can take place.  The further apart our geographic and cultural experience, the less likely we will completely understand each other. No wonder communication across economic levels, ethnic cultures, and nationalities is so complicated.

The lesson here is clear: It is essential for the sender and receiver to know each other as thoroughly as possible before attempting serious communication. “Experience overlap” must take place so that each “noise ,” or “sign,” will have the same meaning to both parties.  Wherever possible, finding opportunities to create this overlap with our target audiences should become a part of our overall strategic communication plan. This reality also underscores the critical importance of  message feedback and repetition, thereby establishing dialogue and giving us an opportunity to correct misunderstandings.

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Managers and consultants often face the awkward and frustrating moment in a meeting when staff members or clients seem to have forgotten all they knew about how to make the institution competitive. 

Many times you have identified the message points and design elements essential for advancing the institution’s brand. You have gone over and over the group processes necessary to get everyone on the same page, and working together as a team. You thought everyone certainly understood the importance of staying focused on action priorities.

Then, suddenly, the head designer shows the staff work so far off the mark you wonder where it came from!  Draft copy is circulated for review that goes off on a tangent, and never reinforces the brand identity. You say to yourself: “What can they be thinking? Who are these people?”  

At moments like this you can feel very silly. This is a staff meeting, not a classroom.  You feel that you need to become their teacher more than their manager. Now you must go over all of the fundamentals still another time. Do you work on these issues together, or must you constantly roll out another lecture?  And what’s more, isn’t it actually pretentious of you to keep shifting into a teaching mode with professional colleagues?

I have found that reviewing the basics of marketing and strategic communication with professional staff is much the same as repeating advertisements with audiences.  Just when you are getting tired of the repetition yourself, your audience is only beginning to understand.

Managers and consultants simply must review the basics periodically, whether or not it seems pretentious. Special staff meetings or retreats offer perfect opportunities. Bringing in a resource expert to help you can be effective. Whatever approach you follow, there is no doubt in my mind that once in a while a “marketing and communication 101” inspirational lecture will be required!

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Conversations in Washington this week once again had me thinking about the exciting potential of international higher education. I recalled how each time I have experienced the coming together of teachers, students, administrators, and others from various parts of the world, I have witnessed a sincere collective curiosity about cultural, religious, class, ethic, political, and historical differences. And I must say, in these settings I have never seen these differences lead to dangerous hostility and conflict. Rather, they almost always lead to new friendships, projects and ideas.

I therefore firmly believe that international higher education is one of our world’s best forms of public diplomacy.  Public diplomacy, for me, is simply defined as people-to-people communication.  It is the people of one culture coming together with people of another for the purpose of common understanding.  It is the ultimate form of using a “soft-power” strategy as an effective alternative to “hard power” conflict. 

This belief led to some very compelling conversations this week about the potential of bringing together university presidents, scholars, public policy leaders, journalists, ministers of education, corporate leaders, and others to discuss what universities can contribute to solving such world problems as poverty, disease, food production, water shortages, energy, cyber crime, and more.

The anticipation of the aftermath of revolts in Libya, Egypt, and elsewhere, also raises the question of what role  educational institutions might play in nation-building, economic development, and global leadership preparation.  Meeting the world’s workforce needs, as well as our needs for experienced international problem-solving oriented managers and executives, is clearly a big challenge ahead for our institutions.

Higher education is becoming a global enterprise, no doubt about it. Every institution in every country will face the internationalization of its student recruitment, faculty scholarship, research orientation, curriculum content, and financial support.  A “sea change” is coming in this industry, and it is truly exciting to imagine what all this change might mean for world problem-solving, and for the ultimate achievement of peace on earth.

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