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How Marketing and Public Relations Can Save Universities

From time to time I’ll see something that raises my hackles and a recent column in The Chronicle of Higher Education did just that. And I’m not alone. Here’s my response with my friend and colleague Grant Heston to a recent ditty in The Chronicle:

By Grant J. Heston and Joe Hice

In his July 9 Chronicle essay â€œHow Marketing and PR are Corrupting Universities,” Lee Vinsel describes how communications and marketing are “bullshit” to be banished from our colleges and universities.

Having held communications and marketing leadership roles with a half dozen colleges and universities in our careers, our response to the more than 2,000-word takedown of our profession is simple.

We agree completely. 

Spin, fabrications and deceptions — bullshit, in other words — have no place in higher ed or any industry. Fidelity to finding and sharing the truth about institutions is the foundation of the best communications and marketing work. 

Truth telling is our objective because telling our authentic, distinctive truth is how we build confidence in our institutions. In higher education, that means confidence for outstanding students and faculty to join us. For alumni and friends to give to us. For political, community and policy leaders to support us.

The reality is that the most recognizable higher education “brands” consistently attract the best students, staff and faculty; secure the most funding; gain the greatest accolades, and receive the most recognition in the press. All of which are critical factors in an institution’s health, growth and long-term success.

We believe the only enduring way to generate confidence is to tell the truth. Spinning a fiction may result in short-term success, but that success will be fleeting and ultimately self-defeating. Our constituencies are too savvy to settle for anything less than the truth.

Dr. Vinsel’s essay is particularly timely, as higher ed is suffering from a crisis of confidence. But burying our heads in the sand by not telling stories — shunning authentic, impactful communications and marketing work — is a bridge to nowhere. 

John Hitt, who spent 26 years as president of the University of Central Florida, often said “we like our story best when we tell it ourselves.” Colleges and universities must tell their stories, for today nothing less than the very future of the industry is at stake. 

A 2019 analysis by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shows that the 40-year return on investment on a four-year degree earned at Virginia Commonwealth University is to $892,000 in today’s dollars. The national average is $864,000.

With that the case, how can an April poll from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic foundation, find that nearly half of the parents surveyed said they did not want their children to go straight to a four-year college, even if financial barriers to enrollment were removed?  

More than ever, we need to combat the growing narrative that tells of higher ed’s irrelevancy. As an industry, and as individual institutions, we must focus on improving the stories we tell.

For decades, colleges and universities have promoted how an undergraduate degree impacts your career earnings. We’ve pushed value in terms of dollars; we need to talk more about the values a degree instills. 

According to the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, college graduates are more than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities than those without a degree. They also contribute nearly 3.5 times more money to charity and vote in presidential elections at rates more than 20 percent higher than those without a degree.

We also need to open our doors to all who want to earn a degree, then do all we can to support their efforts. Too often, higher education looks for the students in the same old places — but talent is not restricted to people with particular income levels or backgrounds. 

That’s why it’s so important to tell inclusive and diverse stories, as the University Innovation Alliance does, about enrolling and graduating students across the socioeconomic spectrum, first-generation students and students of color.

Stories are the foundation of how we interact with each other and the world around us. And there are few industries that boast more compelling stories than higher education.  

From medical school graduates who meet patient needs in unusual ways to understanding the origins of our galaxy to research that predicts 21st century life expectancies, our stories inform, inspire and delight.

Truthful storytelling can help lead higher education out of the darkness and into a future that is relevant and impactful.

That’s how Marketing and PR can save universities. And that’s no bullshit. 

Grant J. Heston is vice president for University Relations for Virginia Commonwealth University and the VCU Health System. He has held communications and marketing leadership roles at the University of Central Florida and Florida Southern College. 

Joe Hice is the founding partner of Well Strategics Communications, a full-service marketing andcommunications consultancy. He has held communications and marketing leadership roles at the University of Florida, University of South Florida and North Carolina State University as well as in the corporate sector with Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Segway LLC and Bombardier Sea-Doo.

Passion Rules!


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