Ten Game-Changing Communications Steps for College and University Presidents

Advice on how to connect and lead …
Whether you are a first-time college or university president, or one with years of experience leading an institution, an essential part of the job is communicating. While it might sound obvious, the importance of reaching out, connecting and building and maintaining relationships cannot be stressed enough. Done well, it can lead you toward great success, and done poorly, it can have a negative impact on your priorities and initiatives.

Leading a college or university is a 24/7 job. And while the job comes with prestige, it also provides you with an excellent opportunity to play a role in the community beyond your institution. Building a profile internally, and in the wider community, is key. University and college presidents serve an average of nine years in the position, presenting a huge opportunity to make themselves seen and heard regionally, as well as nationally.

You have a unique opportunity to reach a wide variety of audiences, including current and prospective students, parents, faculty, peers, alumni, community leaders, government leaders and the media. Through effective communication you will be able to build your personal brand as well as your institution’s profile; and expand your network alongside that of your school.

So take the time to set yourself—and your school—apart. Use every opportunity at your disposal to align and advance your individual goals and those of the institution. Ask yourself: Where am I right now in terms of visibility, prominence and capability and where do I want to be? If you aren’t where you think you should be, the obvious next question to consider is: How can I get there?

In my work with new presidents of higher education institutions, ranging from large research universities to smaller liberal arts colleges, I start with an initial framework to build a personalized and fully inclusive communications approach. Though this framework is geared toward new presidents, its tenants are crucial to maintain throughout a presidency. I share the top 10 tips that every new college and university president should consider in order to capitalize on this unique opportunity:

Research Best Practices. Identify college or university presidents who you admire and respect. Take inventory of their best practices and look for spaces to implement their key messages or actions at your institution. For example, Valerie Smith of Swarthmore College made clear her values of inclusion and access for all students during her inaugural address, an important moment for a president to set the tone of his or her term. Amy Gutmann of University of Pennsylvania is in constant communication with her constituencies, ensuring that all members of the community understand her vision for the institution.

Create a Top 50 list. Get to know community, civic and government leaders in the area and create a list of the top 50 leaders. Make it your mission to connect with these local leaders. Ask trustees for suggestions and names. Carve out time to call or meet with several of these leaders every week.

Develop Key Messages. What differentiates your institution? Assemble a group of colleagues who know the school inside and out and bring them together with you and your communications experts for a half-day “messaging” session. Start by brainstorming key words that describe you, and you feel are authentic to who you are. These key words would then be used to develop three to four key messages that embody you as a president of a university. These are not aspirational; they must be true to who you are in the present moment. These messages are meant to resonate with your determined target audiences and key stakeholders. It is imperative that you communicate regularly with each of your targeted audiences. Use a variety of communications channels—such as email, traditional media outreach, op-eds and social media—to ensure that these messages get disseminated.

Build a Media Plan. Which reporters and media outlets should you get acquainted with and target for future stories? Follow higher education news sources to get an idea of topical issues and what your colleagues are doing. This will help you create unique story angles so you can better establish where your message fits into the broader media landscape. Create a timeline and follow through to keep your voice and message in the public sphere.

Identify Awards and Speaking Opportunities. Even though it may be early in your tenure, opportunities such as award applications and speaking opportunities—regional or national—should be on your radar to maintain visibility and help establish yourself as a thought leader in the field of higher education administration. For example, becoming a speaker at the Aspen Ideas Festival would elevate the status of a president as a thought leader.

Get Media Training. You are the face and voice of your institution. Over the course of your tenure, you will be asked to speak to the media in both positive and difficult times. Good media training should include a “crisis scenario” to practice fielding all types of media inquiries. It never hurts to schedule a second media training, in which you and your team create a preparedness plan for various media-related situations that could arise, if you aren’t completely comfortable after the first session.

Get Speech Training. Public speaking is a part of the job, both within your institution and with external groups. During your tenure, you will address large and small audiences and it is essential to learn to speak authentically. You always want to be “on message,” but never appear to be reading from a script. The best university presidents, CEOs and elected officials all get professional training—you should too.

Use Social Media. Consider maintaining an active Twitter presence or blog. These online platforms provide another medium to disseminate your message with a less formal tone and more casual format. It gives your followers a sense that you are likable and approachable, and allows you to connect on a regular basis. Steven Klasko, president and CEO of Thomas Jefferson University and Jefferson Health, maintains a highly active twitter presence that keeps the Jefferson community up to date on his personal and professional endeavors.

Become a Regional and National Thought Leader. Make sure you have a voice in the areas on which you choose to speak. Look for an initiative or topic that you are passionate about and that will differentiate you and your institution on a regional and national scale. Be aware of the issues that your campus faces, including financial aid and diversity. It is important to be able to speak to these topics with authority and understanding. Work to get your message out using a combination of the tools, tactics and strategies detailed above.

Carve Out Time for these Initiatives. It is easy to get caught up in the massive responsibility and day-to-day running of your college or university; however, taking the necessary time to set yourself up as an effective and successful communicator should be a top priority.

Only you have the ability to capitalize on your position to advance the institution and cement yourself as a leader. You can lose this great opportunity to establish leadership and respect by not cultivating a consistent message. The early days provide a window for setting the tone, introducing yourself in an effective way, and putting yourself on the path toward a positive and open relationship with students, faculty, alumni, donors, the local community and media. If you do not take the time to meet with these key audiences, do not make yourself accessible, and do not make clear your values and goals , then you will surely not evoke a consistent message, leading to difficulties in cultivating a sense of trust and consistency. You have been honored with the respect and trust of your community through this appointment to president; utilize this advice to ensure that you make your mark on your institution for years to come.

Susan Jacobson is president of Jacobson Strategic Communications, a public relations and public affairs company with offices in Philadelphia, Boston, Harrisburg, PA, and South Florida.

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