The Future of Higher Ed PR

Proving the Power of Strategic Public Relations

The practice of public relations in higher education today is very different than it was when we started our careers 25 years ago. Once upon a time, our job was to operate a “telegram office” that sent messages on demand. We used a few tried-and-true channels, didn’t do much research, and considered our work a success if the local newspaper printed a news release we mailed them.

This old-school approach is dying out, thankfully. In its place is a much more strategic approach, one that intentionally aligns communications offices to serve the highest needs of their institutions. The hallmarks of this new approach include research, strategic planning, and executive counseling.

Today, the best PR leaders among us are transforming their departments, moving them away from being a “job shop” to being a partner with—and a resource for—their institutional leaders.

Growth—and Growing Pains

In our roles as leaders of the Counselors to Higher Education (CHE), an association of nearly 700 higher-education practitioners within the Public Relations Society of America, we have seen PR leaders bring strategic focus to their campuses and the benefits are significant, but can come with challenges.

This transformation isn’t easy, especially for staff who were raised in a very different era. In quiet conversations at the most recent CHE annual meeting in April, colleagues driving modernized PR efforts on their campuses confided to us that:

“My president just doesn’t get it. He thinks my job is to get the institution covered by The New York Times, and beyond that he doesn’t care.”

“My boss reports directly to the president, and in the 25 years he’s been here we’ve never had a strategic plan for the communication office. And he won’t let me create one. He spends his time writing the president’s speeches and statements, and pays little attention to the rest of our work.”

“My institution’s leaders don’t tell me about major policy decisions ahead of time. They come to me to announce them, and when I try to explain how different audiences are likely to react—and suggest ways they can work to prepare those groups to support the decision—they’re not interested.”

“My college doesn’t have a clear vision, nor a strategic plan. Without those, it’s awfully hard for me to know where to focus my team’s energy. We’re forced into being a ‘brochure factory.’ Right now there are 148 active projects in our six-person shop—and I’m sure that two-thirds of them will have little to no impact. Yet I find it hard to get out from under the blizzard of demands and do the work I know will really help my school move forward.”

Preventing a Talent Exodus

Unfortunately, we fear that these words are far too familiar for many college PR practitioners. And in many cases, these concerns are much more than just grousing. More than one colleague has shared privately with us that the frustrations have grown to such a level that she or he is actively considering leaving higher education.

These concerns should be a wake-up call for presidents, trustees and anybody who cares about the vitality of our colleges and universities. Effective communication—the kind that enables leaders to really advance their vision—has never been more important, nor more difficult to achieve in today’s content-saturated world.

What’s going on? And what might be done to keep the transformation moving forward and to stop our best people from jumping ship?

We do not have the answer for every specific case, but we hear from presidents, chancellors, and other senior administrators that they want PR strategy—but we also see a lack of patience to invest in developing relationships, study current perceptions and behaviors, and deal with the challenges that come with an engaged constituency. We encourage these leaders to do the hard, messy work of engaging with people, and to develop what Dr. Jessica McWade calls “strategic patience”—the ability to recognize that change is an iterative process that unfolds over time.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Strategy can be a tricky word for senior administrators and PR practitioners alike. Everyone will quickly agree that they want strategy and should be working based on it, but we find that there is a lack of shared understanding about exactly what strategic PR looks like.

The value of strategic communication as a tool for leadership should be self-evident, but often it’s not.  We cannot assume that just because we know the power of excellent PR that our leaders should know it too. We cannot assume that just because we know that strategy is more important than “stuff” – brochures, microsites, and press releases – that others will stop demanding stuff over strategy.

We must continually educate our presidents, chancellors, provosts and others at the top on the value of authentic communication. We must demonstrate that this means doing a lot of listening, building trust and enabling the behaviors leaders need from their followers in order to be successful. This is especially true in higher education, where presidents must persuade, rather than command, and they must use the power of shared narratives to unify disparate groups of stakeholders.

Similarly, we hear from PR practitioners who want a seat at the table and who want to be strategic in their work but have not demonstrated the ability to assemble a strategy and build a structure to support it. These practitioners define their roles around tactics and do not clearly show how effective PR is about way more than earning media coverage and generating web and social media content—that it’s really about building trust and shaping a shared narrative that lays the groundwork for institutional health and effectiveness. We encourage these practitioners to broaden their skills through learning communities like CHE, and to take the risks associated with becoming more strategic.

The Best Practitioners are Planners

Modern PR leaders begin with the institution’s mission and vision, building plans that connect the university’s goals with the needs and interests of the public. They are connectors, and trusted partners. They are deep listeners and strong advocates. They stand for something, both at the decision-making table and in representing the university to the public.

Ultimately we need to own this. As professional communicators we know that when a message isn’t getting through, it’s the fault of the sender, not the receiver. So rather than hectoring presidents to think of us differently, we urge our colleagues to step up and start working to change the situation.

Pivot Point

We are now at a critical juncture, a point where, if we don’t collectively prove the power of PR to academic leaders, the role will be relegated to a lower level, losing direct access to the president, senior staff, and board—and along with it, the ability to provide much-needed counsel about relationships and how policies will affect them. Perhaps more alarming, we are at a point where talented senior professionals are ready to leave academe, wary of working for leaders who do not see the value of strategically positioning PR.

Our call to action for PR practitioners is to stand for something. Be about more than what you and your team can produce, and focus on the value of authenticity, of trust, and of not just speaking at people but communicating with them. Stand for the discipline of knowing your audiences, respecting them, and crafting strategies to engage people in your vision for the future.

Today more than ever, our institutions need the power of strategic public relations. It’s up to us to bring it!