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Business Officer Magazine
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Media Skills for a New Scenario

A 24/7 news cycle and an ever-expanding number of communication methods make way for more-effective higher education messaging.

By Ron Culp

Politicians, public interest groups, and media seek issues that provide easy headlines and an opportunity to affect change. Drawing increased attention, particularly during these turbulent political times within all levels of government, are the myriad issues affecting higher education—tuition increases, student debt, government mandates, student accessibility, time-to-degree completion, proliferation of online courses, and more.

Amidst the scrutiny, little attention is given to the resources needed to sustain a business model heavily dependent on competitive wages and benefits, long-term capital investments, tuition cost sensitivity, and the like. Other than state institutions that routinely appeal for funds from state legislatures, higher education has often done too little over the years to advocate for itself.

Facing the new economic realities, higher education leaders, including business officers, must more effectively communicate institutional financial needs and the overall value proposition of a college degree. Fortunately, new communication tools and methods are at hand.

Why an Enhanced Communication Strategy?

There is no doubt that media, state and federal legislators, as well as families, have become increasingly price-sensitive, especially in an environment where the cost of a higher education has far outpaced inflation and a time when much of the world finds itself in a prolonged recession.

The trend has manifested itself in a number of ways as students and their parents "shop around for the best deal," whether for the best program, the most lucrative scholarships and other tuition discounting mechanisms, or the average completion time to graduation. Factor in a projected overall drop in total enrollments in the coming years, and it's clear that competition for the best and brightest students is greater than ever before.

While enrollment managers nationwide struggle to meet enrollment targets, presidents and senior leaders seek new sources of revenue-including identifying those new academic programs that respond to market demand both in terms of content and delivery—fundraisers focus on keeping donations flowing, and financial officers find paradigm shifts in their own roles. They do everything from balancing the budget to explaining their financial decisions, to quantifying a return on investment—be it related to space utilization or the cost of faculty salaries against the number of students taught, and so on.

As a result of this changing environment, it is essential that financial officers develop a communication strategy that does the following:

  • Anticipates and addresses the fiscal concerns being expressed about their respective institutions.
  • Educates constituent groups—not just governing boards, but also faculty, staff, students, and their parents—about the factors influencing financial operations and related decisions.
  • Offers transparency, particularly with respect to how resources are allocated.

Beyond the Mainstream

The methods for communicating such messages to various constituent groups don't need to focus on traditional media. Rather, in an age of constant communication, financial officers can leverage a number of available tools instead of, or in addition to, depending on traditional media outlets to carry those messages. These tools can be leveraged to communicate directly to constituent groups, thereby eliminating the possibility of interpretation by traditional media outlets.

For instance, many universities make use of the following communication tools:

  • Social-media affinity groups managed by specific colleges, in which interested constituents are advised of successes, alumni accomplishments, and new academic programs and majors that may have been added or eliminated.
  • E-mail blasts to faculty, staff, and students, communicating about budget reductions, early retirement programs, new benefits, or cost sharing of benefits, for example.
  • Personal letters of encouragement and recognition during challenging economic times.
  • Alumni and donor newsletters and e-mails that keep these constituent groups apprised of financial successes, new building plans, the need for new scholarships, and other funding needs.
  • Town hall meetings for faculty and staff to explain complex issues, such as budgets and the impact budget reductions will have on the campus community.

These are only some of the communication tools that can be deployed first and foremost.

Utilizing these communication methods allows universities to deliver their unique messages directly to their targeted groups, on their own terms and timing, and without the filter of traditional media interpretation. More importantly, financial officers should realize that the messages constituent groups want to hear are that their university is well managed and fiscally sound, and that the stewardship of resources is strategic and beyond reproach.

RON CULP is the professional director of the Public Relations and Advertising MA Program, DePaul University, Chicago.