Archive for June, 2013

At the recent Worldviews Conference on Higher Education and Media in Toronto I had a very interesting conversation with Phillip Altbach, one of the top experts in the world on international higher education. We discussed the idea that international education was a major form of soft power and has the potential to significantly improve cross-culture understanding. And as such, it also is one of our purest forms of public diplomacy.

I have been approaching this topic from a perspective I gained from being associated with a think tank in Washington that concentrates on national security issues. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) houses some of the world’s most recognized experts on national security problems and solutions.

Early in my association with  CSIS I became familiar with an often quoted report that introduced the concept of “smart power.” The report presented a set of strategic communication and diplomatic initiatives to advance US interests around the world that continue to influence U.S. foreign policy programs. In that report, the importance of the idea of “soft power” was also specifically mentioned.

In my study of strategic and international communication I have come to believe that soft-power and public diplomacy go hand-in-hand. People-to-people exchanges, and more recently interactive digital media, are the best tools we have to produce greater world understanding.  And through my long years of teaching and speaking abroad I have also come to believe that international higher education is the purest form we have of public diplomacy.

Teaching, learning, focused research, consulting projects and other interactive international educational collaborations all contribute to a more secure world. The more faculty and students get to know each across cultures and ideologies the more national security fears tend to fade, and the more mutual understanding improves.

Higher education is already a global industry. Our potential to enable world peace and diminish security threats is therefore unprecedented. If we use social media to encourage its potential, and the news media take initiative to both advance and monitor it, we can once and for all realize this potential.

In the months ahead I will be exploring this topic in greater depth. As I transition from a vice-chancellor and professor in August to a vice-chancellor emeritus and a research and teaching fellow, I will be posting more about what I am learning. Stay tuned.

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This week I was on two panels at the Worldviews Conference on Higher Education and Media in Toronto. One of them was on branding, and I previewed it in last weeks’ post. The other one was titled: “National Security, Social Media and the Publicity of Academic Findings.”  This one could be addressed from many vantage points, and frankly I struggled with how to approach it.

We were told our topic was inspired by news media coverage of instances of the Canadian government censuring academics, raising academic freedom and transparency questions about accessing sponsored research findings. Of course, social media played a complicating role in these situations, and also raises additional complicated  security and privacy issues in general. To be sure, academic freedom, privacy and transparency questions abound today as universities become more global and find themselves operating in multiple cultures and dealing with multiple government policies.

I have been both a practitioner and an academic who has been teaching strategic and international communication in a journalism school. So fundamentally I believe in as much transparency as is possible. But as a practical matter, in my work I have come to accept the proprietary nature of commissioned research. And so these days I make the assumption that researchers who take commissions to do government studies understand that up front.

Now you might argue that governments are public not private entities and as such should be completely transparent, except possibly for a few national security activities. But it’s simply a fact that elected administrations will always be advancing their ideology related policies, and that information they gather will often be proprietary. This is a reality, even though they may have campaigned on a platform of more transparency!

So in today’s world it is the job of the news media to find out as much as possible about what governments are doing, especially  their wrong-doings. Reporters will therefore continue to try to uncover the findings of proprietary research, as they should. This is a critically important form of checks and balances, and I believe its in this ongoing process that gradual social progress can be made.

All this is to say that proprietary agreements must always be clearly understood upfront, be they with governments or with universities housing government projects. That means that even inside today’s universities, researchers must be clear about  when and if their findings can be published. For true academics, research projects with no strings will always be preferred, but that will not always be the case.

Just how much social media complicates these proprietary issues and raises additional issues about government intrusions into our personal lives, will confuse matters for a long time. Most of us still want to draw a privacy line that can’t be crossed. But today that line always wiggles a bit every time government intrusion charges, terrorists threats, or even exciting new internet opportunities, appear.

One of my students responded to all this by blurting, “There is no such thing as privacy any more. Get used to it!”  For some people this may sound simplistic and naive. Nonetheless, it’s probably true.

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Next week the Worldview Conference on Media and Higher Education is taking place in Toronto. I will be on two panels, one of which is interestingly titled, Branding and the Sophistication of the Communication Culture in Universities.

What makes this panel especially compelling to me is that it, along with the entire conference, is truly international and the implication is that brand identity is not only a signficant issue for universities everywhere, but communication initiatives are also becoming much more sophisticated.

My remarks will be built on my lessons learned over years of struggling to define brand for extremely complex academic institutions.  In the process I have come to believe that a powerful institutional brand is composed of the four or five most differentiating characteristics that distinguish it from others. Once they are effectively summarized and condensed into a simple statement, they become the institution’s brand identity. And eventually they come to be collectively symbolized in consistently used elements of design.

These institutional defining brand characteristics tend to be a combination of program strength, type of campus experience, cultural characteristics, commonly held values, and geographical location features. For them to be enduring over time they must be totally anchored in reality. Otherwise they only function temporarily as promotional hype.

It seems to me that brand identity will become even more important to competitive success in a global market than it has been in a domestic one. The more differentiated the brand the more likely an institution will stand out visibly in this new media world. And as student and faculty migration becomes more global, it is only natural to conclude that overall institutional characteristics will govern location choices.

In addition to this acknowledged international importance of institutional brand, this conference is a very strong affirmation of how international our industry is becoming, and how this reality is changing the game for everyone.

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There are three dictionary definitions of the word transform:  (1)  change in form, appearance; or structure; (2) change in condition, nature, or character; (3) change into another substance.

I encountered the term again this week when I read a seminar promotion that claimed it could show me how to transform my institution. I realized that I had also made this assertion in the past. But for some reason when I read the claim this time it made me uncomfortable. What do we really mean when we say this?  And do we need to be more clear about what we mean?

If the word means changing an organization into a totally different place, that would rarely be our objective. This is simply shutting down one institution and launching another. In the case of marketing and communication this is not an example of transformation. Rather it is announcing the creation and start-up of a new organization.

What then is transformation? Characteristics that differentiate an institution are almost always found in its founding mission. New organizations are generally established to meet a need that is not being met. So when we intend to transform an existing organization we usually mean we intend to build on and modernize its founding mission. So extending the original differentiating mission creatively into the future is what I think most of us mean when we use this term.

Therefore, I believe transformation is a word used by most of today’s marketing and communication professionals to mean totally re-energizing an institution and the people who manage it. The most effective plans re-articulate founding mission, vision and values in such as way as to explain them with a bright new vision for the future. Importantly, they feature suggestions for revitalizing both  leadership and program initiatives, along with a complete set of tactical tools to achieve new levels of visibility within critical target markets.

This kind of transformation is not only possible, it is periodically necessary for most organizations.

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The way the White House has been dealing with the recent crises in the state department, justice department and the IRS is certainly fueling the argument that the government is too large to govern efficiently. That may be so. But my experience would suggest that an important element of strategic thinking and planning just might be missing.

A complicated and rapidly developing competitive environment in higher education a number of years ago is what caused me to begin thinking about bringing integrated marketing concepts into our strategic communication practice. Bringing more sophisticated communication tools into marketing had been underway in business for some time. But bringing marketing thinking into strategic communication had not yet happened, at least to my knowledge. Yet it was coming to my mind now out of necessity.

There are many components to integrated marketing.  But one that can make a huge difference in crisis situations is facilitated group analysis and planning. Many people don’t think more meetings are feasible in a fast-moving setting. But my experience has been that taking enough time to get everyone on the same page before acting can really pay off. And these meetings can be quickly organized and effectively managed if an experienced trained facilitator is close at hand.

Admittedly, the larger the organization the more complicated the challenge. And it’s true that many executives are just not patient enough to work through appropriate group process in any situation. But when things go badly, as they have now at the White House, it takes even more time to work through an ongoing growing mess.

First the commitment to try must come from the top, as well as an understanding of how to go about organizing the initiative. In the case of the White House, the president and chief of staff would have to give some careful thought to who from the various involved segments of government must participate, and who has the skills to lead it. It could be the communication director, but he or she must have the facilitation skills… and many do not.

A working group like this has three specific tasks: First, identify all the relevent facts and get them on the table. What actually happened? What are we doing about it? Second, determine the most complete and yet concise way to tell the story. Stay focused on the heart of the story, but all of it must be told. Otherwise pieces always will continue to dribble out. And finally, choose the most credible and confident spokesman for this particular situation. The more important the story, the higher the level the  spokesman. In crisis situations this is often not the press spokesman, or even the communication director. It is the highest level person closest to the events. And in cases as important as this one, it’s likely to be the president.

For the White House, the need to concisely clarify its primary national policy “brand” themes and reinforce them in everything that is said has also become critical. Priority audiences’ interests must be understood and directly addressed. And they must now be carefully targeted. The most efficient interactive tactics for reaching each must be launched by experienced new and social media practitioners. One thing is certain: A circle the wagons and defend the fort mentality simply will not work in crisis situations.

Breakdown is inevitable. But broadly planned strategic and facilitated group message coordination, together with audience targeting and focused interactive communication, can effectively address critical issues and systematically move institutions and nations ahead. It’s clear now that the White House needs a new approach. What they are currently doing is not working.

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