Recently, many colleges and universities have come around to the idea that they need to do a better job of marketing themselves to compete for brighter students, star faculty and more resources. “Let’s get our name out there,” they cry. “Let’s get our story told!” Problem is, many institutions — or, more accurately, the academics who populate them — do not really want to use the tools of marketing, which requires a certain amount of art and a big dose of discipline. How can you require brand consistency when universities are founded on the notion of academic freedom? What do you say to people who think a business card is an extension of their personality, not of their institution? When your business school thinks they are an island unto themselves? When Athletics gets all the attention and always gets its way? Anyway, how can public relations people — glib, commercial, shallow — begin to comprehend the complexities of the academic mission? As for communications professionals? Even the most tweedy professors and nerdy lab rats think they can design a logo. And why waste money on advertising when we’re not selling widgets?
Okay, it’s tough, but it is possible to begin imposing order and creating an identity that, yes, sells. You start with a lot of research and consultation and you pressure test what you learn and hear. Then you create the words and images that your research led to. You share it with your colleagues, enjoy the squeals of delight or endure the daggers of outrage, and then ask everyone to get with the program. Sometimes it works, and when it does it’s sublime.
By Linda Thrane, vice president for public affairs, Rice University, is charged with developing active support for the university among its broad base of stakeholders. Thrane served as vice president of university relations at the University of Minnesota from 2005-2007, where she led the university’s internal communications, public relations, government relations, communications services, marketing, community outreach and alumni relations. She was executive director of the Council for Biotechnology Information, a $135 million communications initiative to inform the North American public about agricultural and food biotechnology from 2000-2004. Prior to her service at the University of Minnesota she was vice president of public affairs at Cargill, editorial writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, associate director of the Minnesota Petroleum Council and political reporter for the United Press International.
Join Thrane along with Joseph Brennan and Michael Warden, APR for their co-presentation, The Transformation of Public Relations to Higher Education, at the PRSA 2008 International Conference: The Point of Connection on Monday, October 27, 2008 in Detroit, MI!