Last week at a higher education conference in New Orleans, I listened to a talk from Rebecca, vice president of marketing and community relations at a small university, who was hired several years ago to be a “change agent”: she was brought on board to increase the productivity and output of the communications office, which included everything from changing, adding or eliminating projects, positions and goals to changing the external view of the office as a whole. In fact, only two staff members currently remain from the original team she was hired into nearly five years ago. In her session, she discussed her steps to building a strong higher education marketing team.
The first step is facing inward and analyzing team structure and talent: are the right people in the right seats? Rebecca provides the example of what happened with her media relations manager: the person in this position said she didn’t really like media relations. When she woke up in the morning knowing she had writing and editing to do, she was excited to come to work. But when she knew her day would be filled with pitching to reporters, she felt queasy. Rebecca instantly knew she had to change this person’s job to match her talents and find someone who would be passionate about media relations.
“It’s all about putting the right people in the right seats on the bus,” she explained. She offered these tips for taking that first step of looking inward:
- You’re only as strong as your weakest team member.
- Realign roles: in this particular office, one person is responsible for one channel, i.e., television, radio, social media, print, etc.
- Empower your employees to make decisions and hold them accountable to results.
- Make sure there’s clarity of who’s responsible for what.
- Do less and do it better.
- Keep everyone in the know.
- Focus on outcomes not outputs.
- Make time for camaraderie.
- As leaders, we have to focus on whether a project produces actual outcomes (outcome v. output).
- Let trust grow on its own time.
- Be visible and transparent: make your calendar open, let people know what you’re doing, keep your door open unless absolutely necessary to close it.
- Be aware that people are motivated differently.
- Take time to mentor and coach.
- Lift up accomplishments of staff members.
The next step is to face outward. The speaker’s primary piece of advice here is crucial and cannot be ignored: “If it’s broken, you must fix it,” she said. Her communications office establishes 3-4 major priorities for each year that have clear goals that can readily be measured. These goals of the communications office align with the college’s overall strategic plan. Rebecca says that when she first came on board as leader of the office, she chose “low-hanging fruit goals,” a smart way to begin her role as a change agent within the organization.
One program that the office began was a Community Leadership Brand Ambassador program. She worked to establish faculty and staff members in roles throughout the local community, whether it be organizing committees, boards, advisors, team members, etc. These folks were trusted to represent the university throughout the community via their work, which resulted in improved town-gown relations and increased local visibility for the university.
Rebecca also encouraged communications offices to find “Trojan horse partners.” During a restructuring of this sort, it’s an excellent internal public relations strategy to work with a group that, once you’ve established a great relationship and they are happy to have worked with you, will openly speak to others about the great work you’ve done. This establishes the communications office’s brand within the college, helping bridge gaps and create relationships among the students, faculty and staff we represent.
“Nurture relationships across campus,” she advised. “We found out, through our research and our asking around, that the communications office was somewhat unknown on campus. You must build your own awareness and brand before you can begin doing it for the entire college.” As a higher ed marketer, I know this to be a real issue and one that can be fixed with the right kind of hands-on, grassroots self-marketing.
Step three in this team-building process is to measure and communicate. Rebecca didn’t make any changes to the communications and marketing office for the first six months of her tenure. During that time, she listened and observed.
The office now produces monthly and annual measurement reports to the president and senior staff officers, which not only include outcome measurements, but also celebrates accomplishments of the communications staff members.
“Don’t forget to tell your own story,” she says.