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Marketing & Communications

The Crushing Wave of Internal Communications

I’m going to be writing about internal comms in higher ed in three four parts over the coming weeks. Sophisticated, right?

Part One, right here, is about how this is a huge thing and scares me.
Part Two is about the hazards of conflating internal and external messages; Part Three is a flailing attempt to make a case for resourcing this;
Part Four is a sandwich-themed run at a solution.

You’ve been warned!

To begin: higher education isn’t great at internal communication.

There are exceptions to this rule, I’m sure. But as somebody who works at one of Canada’s great universities, directly in two faculties and in close collaboration with other on-campus units, who has studied at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and with a partner who has also studied at a variety of schools — if there’s a university out there that’s really top-notch at keeping students, faculty and staff in the loop, I’d like to see it.

Why are we so bad at this?

First, it’s huge. It’s really, really huge.

I’m not saying “crushing wave” accidentally.

A student — I’ve been one, and I am one, currently pursuing an LLM — needs information on the following things:

  • current courses, assignments, grades (per course), delivered at the class level
  • direct correspondence with professors on the above
  • department-level messaging for students in a specific areas
  • faculty updates on faculty-wide issues, including visiting speakers, special talks, etc.
  • notes from the dean on matters of import, like COVID
  • university updates on university-wide issues, including university-wide events
  • notes from the Principal and Provost on matters of import
  • official university communications vehicles — school papers/reporting
  • student government
  • internet security
  • physical and mental wellness
  • student clubs and student events
  • student communications vehicles — student papers/reporting
  • career resources and development
  • study groups and team assignments
  • and probably more stuff

That’s… a lot. I’m a grown-up man with a family and pets, and I don’t think I have to deal with nearly as much on a daily basis as a 19-year-old thrust onto campus has to contend with.

Second: the fight for student attention is constant and eternal.

All of the above are run by units (and units within units). These are usually staffed by highly intelligent, highly accomplished people. Their KPIs are monitored by other highly intelligent, highly accomplished people. There are a huge variety of silos. Even if competition isn’t the intent, it’s the outcome.

A student who thinks their future career prospects depend on growing the club they started through a series of huge events isn’t going to doff their cap and give way to a visiting talk by an academic in an area they have no interest in.

If Career Services’ success is measured by the number of students who take their online course on CV-writing, they’re not going to park that program for a year to provide more space for a mental wellness program unrolling concurrently.

The MBAification of higher ed has resulted in measurable outcomes as the sole criterion of success in a lot of cases — and while at first flush it’s a laudable approach to resource allocation, it results in a “unit KPIs first, everything else after” approach across the board that pits us against each other in unforeseen ways.

Nobody wakes up in the morning intending to fight, but it’s a low-key battle for minds and time unrolling in real time, all the time. Academia, red in tooth and claw.

Further complicating that is a passion for specialization — or redundancy, if you want to take a more cynical view.

The university offers career services for all students, but faculties and departments also have their own individual career service units, offering either overlapping or complementary resources. Individual units take on their own mental wellness projects because there’s a distinct spin they want to put on it that the university-level wellness services don’t provide.

Competition scales not only laterally, but fractally — you’re not only getting concurrent messages that pit a cupcake sale against a bookstore promotion and a talk on the Visgoths, you have sessions on how to do well in an in-person interview battling against each other for primacy.

And — and! — to succeed, we not only have to win the internal fight, but beat out the entire universe. We have to eclipse Netflix enticing students to binge the latest show, AAA video games pitching themselves on Twitch, live events at the local bar, and every other thing that highly aggressive, highly mobile, and often less ethical for-profit marketers are cooking up to compete for these eyes and minds.

Third: there’s no consolidated venue for a solution.

The above takes place over…

  • Email (itself on various platforms)
  • Learning platforms/software
  • Web sites, posts / blogs
  • Event calendars, online and off
  • Social media
  • In-building screens
  • Posters
  • Handouts and flyers
  • Signage
  • Standalone university apps

When I was at the law faculty, students were reporting getting 25+ “official’ emails a day from various quarters. They’re also compelled to check in on four or five courses via a learning platform (and each course has its own discussion forums and/or mailing lists).

Also to stay on top of social media; most student clubs and societies default to Facebook as their platform of choice, because it’s in-flow for the bulk of students. (This in turn presents equity issues; compelling students to join for-profit social media platforms with dubious security practices to participate fully in the life of the school is bad policy).

Conversations are happening on Slack / Teams / etc. for group projects, design teams, and clubs. Schools and faculties can attempt to consolidate this on official app platforms — this is something I’m supporting right now in my work — but unless you get overwhelming buy-in, it’s yet another channel as opposed to a narrowing of channels.

As a man in his 40s, email is still my default. It’s still a perfectly valid tool. I’m less certain, though, that it’s an answer to the post-2000 cohort.

It’s hard to research this — it’s hard to research anything in the marketing space, because the research is generally done by marketers to support something they are marketing, so the answer can be “email works wonders,” but you dig deeper and find that it’s research from an email solutions provider — or the research can prove that you absolutely, positively need a bespoke app — and underneath that is a bespoke app company. This is why academia is important. Making a note to dig more into peer-reviewed studies of communication channels and generational cohorts…

The net result, though, is that it’s a mishmash. No one channel is appropriate: handling internal communications right is a multi-channel solution, and is as robust and expansive as an external marketing and communications program. The challenge is just as large, but the challenge is calling from inside the house.

And on that note…

Fourth: nobody’s staffed for it.

Marketing teams run small and lean, and are almost always mandated to be externally focused. Marshalling even two or three of these stacks into a coherent plan and format(s) would be daunting for a full-time staff member. Side-desking it when you’re already managing external marketing and communications, or — even worse — dumping it on a beleaguered admin assistant to side-desk without meaningful support? Cold sweat.

This speaks to the competitive issues above: even with the absolute best intentions of good citizenry, it’s literally impossible for somebody communicating with students as a side-desk task, without training or a meaningful loops into institutional teams, to know that their appeal to students to submit their timesheets on Thursday instead of Friday this week is colliding with a dozen other emails that are flying into their inboxes at that same moment.

I have been and am part of partial solutions in the past — piloting a newsletter project in the law faculty when I was there, and working on a second phase of app implementation at the engineering school that will help. But in both of these cases, the projects were a product of a senior admin out of the marketing sphere seeing something they thought would help and pulling the trigger on implementing, then looping marketing/communications in to make it work. This isn’t a dig on either scenario: in both situations, it helped immensely, or is on track to help immensely.

But in neither circumstance was it a holistic, integrated plan to address internal communications robustly — these were and are pressure valves to leverage a technology (email management tools in the first case, bespoke community app development in the other) to tackle the sliver of a massive internal comms challenge that happened to be in the administrators’ views at the time.

The net result is that marketing and communications teams are cut into some of these communications, and not others, in haphazard ways. One program might ask for help communicating a special event to the entire faculty, while other programs self-actualize on that. A faculty member doing a great job at remote learning might ask if we can share those successes in a news story / social media, while others toil in silence. Units within the central university can fire off five or six unrelated requests per week to share valuable information directly with students — mental wellness, security (physical and/or digital), prominent academic visitors, special food events from the third-party food service providers, reminders to return library books…). One professor welcoming a distinguished visitor wants to throw their classroom doors open to the whole school for this visit. The beat goes on, and on.

The above illustrates the apparent problem, which is, well, chaos. A tremendous amount of unprioritized comms needs that, when they flow in our direction, have to be subjected to instantaneous gut-checks from the marcomms team according to

  • relevance
  • urgency
  • overall importance
  • channels
  • passthrough (can you just forward a message without editing, or does it need repackaging?)
  • potential consolidation (can this be combined with other things to reduce load?)
  • sometimes just saying “no” to things

If you get any of the above wrong, you’re in trouble. But if you get it right… the old axiom “the reward for good work is more work” comes into play, as more people wake up to the fact that you’re offering a resource to help them get their lost-in-the-shuffle messages in front of students, which creates further demand — and more shuffle for things to get lost in.

But there’s another problem.

A more insidious problem: that in the absence of meaningful internal channels, we conflate our external channels for inward-facing messaging. While at first blush it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it actually kind of is — and I suspect might be a hidden Achilles heel in a lot of higher ed marketing. Next week!

January 24, 2021

By mattshepherd

I love your story.
You’ve got one. Everybody does. Storytelling is what makes people people, and it’s what makes organizations succeed or fail.
For 40-odd years, I’ve been in love with stories, and I’ve spent a lifetime building structures to help people tell them.