Archive for April, 2013

Retirement seems to be on the mind of many people these days. It keeps coming up in conversations with colleagues everywhere.

I certainly never thought about retirement in the way my father did. At age 65 he called it quits. But these days it seems that more and more people are thinking differently about the end game.  In some cases it might be that people generally are healthy longer. In other cases it might be the consequences of an uncertain economy. But for many of us there remains a strong continuing feeling that our work is not yet done!

Truthfully, I never experienced any of the passages that many of my friends did. I cruised from my 20’s into my 30’s hardly noticing it. When the 40’s came along I was too preoccupied with career survival to even notice. For me mid-life crises never happened. Or, if they did I never focused on them.

At 65 my only fear was that I would over stay my executive position, as many others had done without realizing it. But together, the chancellor and I found a new challenge  before I knew it.  And so, I was off still again for another adventure.

Now at age 70, here we go again. I must admit I have started to think about how long all this can go on, but I indeed do want to go on! And so once again came the possibility of thinking “transition” rather than retirement. This time it seemed prudent to simplify and focus this next stage a bit. And so, the chancellor and I came up with a plan for me to retire as vice-chancellor, but then to reconnect in post-retirement positions as vice-chancellor emeritus and senior fellow in TCU’s John V. Roach Honors College and Schieffer School of Journalism. This time it’s back to the world of ideas and extraordinary students for me, and once again I am reenergize.

Several weeks ago I attended my last trustee meeting where the chancellor explained all this perfectly. Then during honors week, I reengaged with some of the best students on the planet.  Now this week I attended the university’s annual service recognition and retirement ceremony, and again my official retirement was explained more as a transition.

After all, everyone’s ability to make a difference never goes away. It just matures and becomes more experienced. And luckily, today seems to be a time when many of us can actually think this way, and actually make it happen.

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In Washington DC everyone seems to understand the term “strategic communication.” It simply refers to the professional practice of helping organizations and individuals become better understood. But in other places I continue to have people ask me “What is strategic communication?”  These people are more accustomed to the terms “public relations and advertising.”

In past posts I have referenced how public relations and advertising as a field of study became strategic communication in my work. Simply put, it was a matter of my concluding that a new and more complicated world required bringing other related disciplines into my thinking and planning.

Over the years I have seen everything about communication become more complicated. Media revolutions changed everything, from the array of tools I used to consumer impact and choices. As technology made the world smaller, the internationalization of virtually every industry added cultural and political complications. And so as institutions struggled to be better understood in a universe of information clutter, earlier promotion and advertising campaigns were no longer sophisticated enough.

And so some of us became “pioneers” in our struggles to cope with this new complexity as we began to look to other fields of study to bolster our work. I experimented with adapting integrated and strategic marketing ideas to communicating academic institutions, and wrote three books about it (www.case.org/books). This changed our thinking from promoting what was there, to getting involved with planning and rethinking programs, price, distribution, and communication simultaneously… realizing that no amount of communication can make a program or institution successful unless it meets a perceived need.

This new way of thinking led to realizing that the field of “group dynamics” provided leadership tools to get everyone on the same page with respect to competitive advantage, and to motivate them to help tell the story.  This added energy to the power of “word-of-mouth,” which in a new media world could become even more powerful as internet “buzz!”  And this led to looking at the field of “organizational behavior” to understand how to deal with various leadership styles and internal political issues which too often became barriers to success.

And so many of us adopted the term “strategic communication” to describe what we believe to be a more substantive approach to public relations and advertising, one that incorporates the study of integrated marketing, group dynamics, and organizational behavior to meet the challenges of a more sophisticated world.

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We have been discussing the role of group process in strategic communication and integrated marketing. Last week’s post described the use of brand clarification groups.  This process not only produces more precise mission, values and vision statements, it also produces lists of competitive advantage characteristics which can then be prioritized into powerful branding themes. The challenge now is to communicate this clarified brand identity to every individual in every constituent group in today’s extremely complex media environment.

My first suggestion here is to have these statements and themes on a single sheet of paper on the desk of everyone on the communication staff.  In this way whenever they are preparing official statements or editing official materials they can make sure they are including consistent brand identity reinforcing messages and stories wherever possible.

My second suggestion is to form an ‘editorial priorities committee” that uses this “branding sheet” as a guide to brainstorm a list of compelling institutional stories that will reinforce these statements and themes. This committee can have both inside and outside the institution membership so that all constituent perspectives are represented. It can then meet periodically to review and refine a master story list. Repeating key reputation defining stores creatively using a current “news hook,” or a new angle, rarely gets old with audiences that have a natural interest, or even potential interest, in a particular organization.

All corporate magazine editors deal with the issue of whether or not institutional “information” publications exist primarily to report the organization’s news, or to focus primarily on promoting positive achievements and distinctions. My experience suggests that the most popular institutional publications achieve readership credibility only by doing both. They report the news, including all sides of controversies… and they rigorously reinforce brand identity.

We live in a world of information clutter. Imaginative repetition is precisely what is needed to cut through that clutter and establish sustained brand clarity and reputation. And this clarity is precisely what is needed to achieve long-term institutional goals.

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This post continues a series about the role of group process in planning and managing a strategic communication program. What differentiates strategic communication from traditional public relations and advertising is bringing the subject matters of organizational behavior, integrated marketing, and group dynamics into the field.  And group dynamics tools are key to clarifying competitive advantage, brand identity, and to mobilizing  and motivating people to go out and tell the institution’s story.

The most successful brand clarification projects begin by forming small brainstorming groups within each constituent category. For example, university executives might commission several small homogenous groups of students, faculty, administrators, alumni, donors, community leaders, and parents simply to come together to list those features that make the institution special or unique.  Experience teaches that they will list prominent fields of study, outstanding student opportunities, unique experiences or traditions, internal culture characteristics, commonly held and articulated values, campus landscape features,  colors, textures, and even geographic location differentiators. Brainstorming will produce a long list. The next task, then, is to put them in priority order, and finally to identify the top 4 or 5. Most of the time these groups will produce very similar lists.  It may surprise you how often collegiate as well as other institutional experiences turn out to be very similar.

These priority ordered lists should then be given to a smaller representative committee to review. These people should merge them into a final list of 4 or 5.  A good writer, should now be able to write mission, vision and values statements based on them. These statements, along with the branding points list, can now be officially approved by the institution’s executive committee and board of trustees. They then become the foundation guidelines for all official institutional communication.

This is a widespread institutional listening exercise. Everyone who participates always enjoys it.  It takes time, but the buy-in is critically important. People love to talk about the experiences they had in college, or with any institution where they have been involved. Everyone can end on the same page, and are now in agreement with respect to what makes the place so special.

The final outcome of this project will be accurate positioning statements and brand characteristics that volunteer and professional leaders helped produce together. And the resulting consistent messaging is what eventually will cut though today’s mind-numbing media clutter, and clarify the institution’s distinctive competitive advantage in the marketplace.

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