The Throughline

An integrated approach to connect with your community

After working with clients in higher education for 25 years one question always sits at the top of my mind. Why are things so siloed? Why are admission, student life, advancement, and alumni communications created without communicating with each other? Why is the alumni magazine sometimes created in isolation from alumni relations or school-specific magazines created in isolation from the flagship magazine that the same alumni will receive? At the end of the day, we are all working for the same institution, with the same goal: to advance it. Fortunately, for many colleges and universities things are changing.

Mission and Brand

The foundation for all of the communications should be the institution’s mission, priorities, and brand. I recently attended a presentation, “Spinning Institutional Priorities into Storytelling Gold,” by Amy Lovett, editor-in-chief at Williams College. She literally ducked behind the podium when she announced to a room full of editors that the magazine is for the institution.

As Assistant Dean of BioMedical Communications at Brown University’s Warren School of Medicine Kris Cambra notes, “We try to ensure that we’re always true to what the mission of the medical school and the brand of the medical school is, in whatever audience we’re talking to. So that the school that students know as students is the same one that they know as alumni.”

In Kris’s role at Brown, she oversees all communications so it makes sense that she is weaving the mission through all of the communications. 

Overarching strategy

Rachel Nagger, director of marketing and communications, Kent Place, also oversees all of the communications at her school. As she meets with the head of school, admissions team, and advancement director, she asks what they are hearing from their prospective communities and how they can address the topics—always tying back to the mission.

If the mission and brand are the North Star, an integrated strategy is what keeps communications on the right path to support the brand and priorities and advance the institution.

Angela Paik, founder at Cause and Effect Strategies, has worked with numerous colleges and universities to develop university-wide communication strategies that align with priorities and brand. “Say a school is launching a strategic plan, which is a significant moment in the course of a college or university, you plan communications that are specific to audiences. Prospective students don’t care about your strategic plan. But they are going to care about why [that’s] in there. Alumni audience wants to know, what is this going to cost? And what’s the campaign plan for? The development staff gets a strategic plan, and they want to know immediately how they should talk about these priorities.”

Consider the Audience

Your community is your throughline. How is the message delivered to a 17-year-old prospective student versus an alumnus who has had their own experience with the school already? It begins with being authentic to the school and confident in communicating its mission.

“I would say that this isn’t the medical school for everyone,” Kris notes. “We try to be really upfront about that and reflect that actual culture. We listen to what the medical students say about it, and then use that language. This is a very mission-driven medical school. Our mission attracts very socially conscious people, which reinforces our philosophy."

It is also about understanding the audience. That is the strength of having unique departments that can go deeper to know a specific segment of the community. What are prospective students looking for? What are the pride points for alumni? “Even if the communications are coming out of a central office, there’s somebody in advancement, alumni relations, or wherever, who really has the pulse of the group and knows the range of feelings and perspectives on any given issue. My job is to think about what's going on with all the different audiences, how will this message land with all of them? My most commonly dispensed piece of advice for institutional leaders, when it comes to communications, is that they should think less about what they want to say, and more about how it will be heard,” Angela shares.

It Takes a Village

It’s no coincidence that communication is central to success. Successful communications teams, from independent schools to large universities, conduct regular meetings with campus partners and communications to review priorities and how to effectively develop stories for the unique audience. But some are digging in deeper.

Kris recently initiated a bi-weekly meeting with her 32 campus-wide partners who are responsible for content development. “I’m starting with the basics, just to get people learning more about consistency, the visual identity and the rules around that, and to provide them with the resources since a lot of these are people who don’t necessarily have communications in their title.”

Bryant University created a brand journalism team as part of their structural reconfiguration. Each brand journalist has a beat with a dean or director. “There’s always a pipeline of conversation happening,” says Casey Nilsson, deputy editorial director at Bryant. 

Rachel takes an active approach. “I try to get out and talk to as many people on campus as possible—the division directors, the academic deans, student life, athletics, performing arts, visual arts, and just check in and ask, ‘what's going on?’” She then creates a master story list and reviews it against the school’s mission and priorities. This gives the stories an authentic feeling versus starting with the priority first. She notes that it takes time but stories have a more organic, Kent Place feeling.

Sharing and Customizing the Narrative

Another part of the equation is planning how to share the stories. Not only is this important for reaching a broader audience, but it can also help to justify the cost associated with producing top level content.

Casey notes that acting CMO Edinaldo Tebaldi, vice president for strategy and institutional effectiveness is an economist that knows the worth of the brand work, which creates a wealth of content that can be repurposed in various ways. For example, say they're working on a piece for the magazine about an antibiotics researcher. As part of the process, they'll interview students who are gaining experiential learning, which can be used for testimonials and profiles for program and department web pages as well as admission materials. That builds relationships with those students, so when they're about to graduate or later when they're alumni, the team can reach out and get updates for more profiles, social media posts, and testimonials about the value of their degree.

“Instead of focusing on just one particular audience, we’re thinking about how a piece can reach multiple audiences and have real tentacles. By homing in on the brand storytelling a piece can go a lot of different places. It is a transition at Bryant to integrate our communications and our marketing efforts and see what we can really and reduce inefficiencies,” Casey adds.

This approach takes time and requires considering the delivery and what each format should "do." For instance, press releases are designed to inform, magazine articles to intrigue, and social media to engage and entertain. The latter is one of the most visible channels for your audience, yet it tends to be the last thing considered, oftentimes relegated to a junior staff member or multiple people on the team. The end result is a fragmented voice. When taking on social media, commit the resources and have one voice represent the school instead of many. 

Set the Structure

In the timeline of education, the concept of an internal communications and marketing team is fairly new. Though communications and marketing sometimes fall under advancement, its placement is changing as its function becomes more and more essential to every aspect of an institution's success. In How to Market a University, Building Value in a Competitive Environment, Teresa Flannery makes the case for the team to be on cabinet level and report to the president. That same year (2021) Simson Scarborough published their annual survey, The Higher Ed CMO Study and noted “73% [of lead marketers] report being included in the President’s Cabinet,” showing that this is the way most schools are going. 

But it doesn’t happen overnight. In 2019, Brown University began a shift to a central communications model under the direction of Cass Cliatt, senior vice president for communications. News and editorial, marketing and events, web and digital, and Brown Alumni Magazine, all moved under the umbrella of Office of University Communications . Cass did extensive work identifying brand perceptions and stereotypes and built a comprehensive messaging platform that is used to make sure that communications are brand-compliant.

The shift also included establishing an enterprise model where they are a partner to  13 units on campus (in addition they offer a fee-based or approved vendor program for other campus projects). Carly Kite Lapinski, VP for marketing communications and content strategy, notes that “by having a centralized partner model they are able to see trends and make connections.” Through an annual planning process, they focus on the users, consider digital-first, and develop content for unique audiences in addition to holding frequent cross-campus meetings.

Carly shares that there were skeptics along the way and it was a slow and at times messy process moving people away from a fulfillment model to one-on-one partners. But through doing good work and knowing their partners’ needs, the office gained momentum and buy-in. But the most important buy-in was in place from the beginning—the support of President Christina H. Paxson, who understood the need for strategic planning.

Now they are a “well-oiled machine thinking about projects ahead of the curve,” notes Carly. And not only are they a central resource, but they are also involved in writing job descriptions, hiring, and onboarding people working in communications across campus to ensure clarity of brand messaging.

Bryant’s communication team is also in the presidential division with the CMO being the first in the school’s history. Casey notes, “Instead of being more service-oriented to our campus partners, we are supportive. Our North Star is always brand elevation, reputation elevation, and doing this all through storytelling.”

I couldn’t have said it better.