“Our school punches below its weight.”
“Our school is not as visible at it should be.”
“We need to strengthen partnerships and engage more broadly with the business community.”
These are common refrains I hear from university presidents, deans, marketers and other school leaders. I would argue that it is virtually impossible to move the needle on these concerns if faculty are not engaged in external communications. The multiple disruptions impacting education – such as how the public engages from a digital communications perspective – further accentuates why enhanced public engagement from faculty is a “must have” as opposed to a “nice to have”.
The problem is that many faculty don’t feel incentivized to communicate their work through the media and different digital communications channels. There is the perception – at times warranted – that professors should only be doing research. Communications activities unrelated to research (like blogging, doing interviews in the press and even writing a book for a general audience) can be viewed as deviations away from serious research. This is particularly concerning to non-tenured professors.
Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith in their book Most Likely to Succeed note that tenure decisions are based upon two factors: research output and politics. While every institution is different, it seems that there is some truth behind this simplistic statement for many institutions. There need to be concrete changes in the institution’s culture and incentives to combat this.
Ideally, it would be best to tweak the system so public communications could be accounted for in the tenure process or rewarded in some way. There could be creative ways to do this, like bundling public communications activities into the category of citizenship. Regardless if this is possible, school leadership and marketing communications teams can collaborate together to shift the culture by considering the following tactics.
- Model public communications. If you want individuals to act in a certain way, leaders need to actually do this themselves. Therefore, leaders need to be engaging in external communications as part of their work, using marketing communications professionals to help in the process. This can take many different forms, whether it is engaging with the press, blogging, using social media, etc. Key is that communications is regular. When a dean is visible in the press and using digital communications regularly, then that leader is well positioned to encourage the faculty at the school to do the same. The actions back up the request.
- Highlight contributors via email communication. Consider deploying regular internal communications that highlight faculty who are in the media and use social media to create a positive impact. Key is that this comes from the leader’s email address, not some automated message from the communications staff. Of course the communications team can – and should – support the appropriate leadership member through ghostwriting, editing and disseminating the email. The message should praise the individuals who are doing good work in this area of public communications and then reinforce the key messaging around why such activities are important for the school. I would suggest this is done on a regular basis (say monthly), not just the ad hoc communication when something particularly noteworthy is happening.
- Leverage physical spaces. When I started as director of public relations in a previous role with a business school, one of my first actions was to use different physical spaces to highlight press coverage. So we put up boards located in strategic locations around the school and displayed print copies of the press. We would also periodically assemble a press clippings booklet and disseminate it to faculty. These are low-cost investments that enable faculty who are taking part in media activities to have visibility among their peers. For faculty not bought into the process, this signals that the school takes these activities seriously.
- Reinforce the message during physical faculty meetings. I suggest that this is an agenda item during every in-person physical gathering. It doesn’t have to take considerable time. The appropriate leader can spend just a few minutes outlining highlights, recognizing individuals and reinforcing the message of how public communications ties to the big picture goals of the school or institution.
- Provide awards. Many schools give out teaching and research awards to deserving professors. Why not consider giving out an award to professors for impact (or some other name of the recognition)? There would be various means to then promote that award, both internally and externally.
- Implement a robust learning program. I was speaking at an academic conference and asked some 200 professors in the room how many had been trained during their PhD studies to communicate for research audiences. Every hand went up. I then asked how many had been trained to communicate the ramifications of research to external audiences via the media and digital communications channels. Every hand went down. Hence the importance of training. I would actually suggest this to be an ongoing learning initiative. It might certainly make sense to bring in a communications trainer like myself to roll out an experiential learning workshop that enables faculty to see bestpractice and apply it through different exercises. But this shouldn’t be a one-off. What if in addition to a major annual training event, there are also monthly brown bag learning lunches? Faculty member who successfully engaged the press could share their experiences with attendees? Or maybe bring in someone from the marketing team who can highlight some aspect of a new social media tool. If your school has a culture of using internal sharing platforms (like Slack for example), then think about setting up a communications channel where individuals can ask questions and share best practice.
- Set up an ambassador program. I think there is great power in mobilizing a group of individuals who will share key messages with their audiences. I am working on an ambassador program now with a client. In this case, we have a team that commits to highlighting the thought leadership of different experts on LinkedIn. I always find it amusing to see the type of engagement that happens when an individual shares a particular piece of content, compared to the institutional logo. This is low hanging fruit as the marketing communications team can provide the content to be disseminated and then the ambassadors can either copy it and disseminate on their channels or tweak the language and interject some of their opinions. Ambassador programs are a great way to amplify messages externally. At the same time, it helps internally in various ways.
In summary, words are cheap. Without a sustained communications effort, any new initiative usually fades into oblivion. So don’t just talk to faculty occasionally about the importance of external communications. Demonstrate it on an ongoing basis.
Kevin Anselmo is the founder and principal of Experiential Communications, a consultancy providing strategic communications services and training to individuals and groups within higher education. Learn more about his Communications Training services for academics and researchers.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Biz Ed Magazine website.