Risk management is a tricky business. Heck, risk is a tricky business — I bought and read a book on the subject a few years ago (The Science of Fear, but titled Risk when I bought it).
It was an eye-opener — a lot of things I’d intuited but never really understood laid out plain, with the general takeaway that as story-driven people, we perceive risk on a very different level than risk exists at.
It’s important, initially, to understand that there’s a massive tension at the heart of marketing for any great institution.
Marketing is by its nature disruptive. It’s meant to get and hold attention, and doing things in exactly the expected way, as safely as possible, is not a good way of doing that. You capture attention through innovative and different ways of doing things.
Innovation, and difference — are risky.
This makes marketing and communications in higher ed a perpetual engine of contradiction: you succeed by being innovative and disruptive, but are beholden to steward a brand and story that can be hundreds of years old, with stakeholders spanning older alumni, major donors, government, the worlds of science and the arts, the local community, prospective students, current students… and more besides.
In higher ed, I’ve been coming to realize that part of the risk aversion is due to the breadth of the stakeholder base, and also that marketing and communications means a lot in this context.
It’s a very broad idea that gathers a lot of types of thinking, and they sometimes get bundled as a single understanding of risk — and consequent processes — than separated out into constituent parts with their own risk profile.
I’m thinking about that, and thinking about ladders.
Ladders are risky; the higher you climb, the worse you can fall.
But the higher you climb, the more you’re laddering. You can reach more, see further… every rung up the ladder makes it more ladder and less… tiptoes or stepstool.
What if we were to look at the range of activity like a ladder? Some things mean climbing higher and chancing more to do them well. Others — stay close to the ground.
Awards / events
The funny thing about the ladder is that I keep trying to conflate activity types with channel types, to the point that I think there’s a whole separate question here to look at: must certain channels be riskier than others? It feels like social media has to be more daring to cut through the noise / clutter / amazingly entertaining things out there, while web-based or print journalism can be a bit more stoic.
I’ve carved it up as story promotion and storytelling above, which at a glance might seem incoherent. But I think there’s a less-risky, more-staid “story” on the site, or in print, but what drives eyes to that story — on social media, or elsewhere — needs to be a bit more marketing-ish to succeed.
This is a bit of a bolt from the blue moment for me, as I realize I’ve actually settled into a pretty static view of storytelling myself; I’ve been thinking of the full-story-to-social-media spectrum as a continuity of the same thing, not that the social media component is actually advertising for the story it’s sharing… it’s a subtle difference, but it feels profound the more I think about it.
There’s also an audience ladder that I think lives next to the activity ladders, organized roughly and unscientifically according to how much moxie I think goes into reaching them across the board:
Prospective grad students
Prospective undergrad students? How are you going to tell them you have the best theatre program in the country in a way that competes with Twitch livestreams and TikTok?
And so on down the chain, in frankly a slightly ageist way (sorry); alumni squarely in the middle because they encompass such a broad range of ages and interests; The Concerned being that specific set of people that are agitated about a very specific issue that crisis communications needs to manage. They may be all over the map demographically, but the crisis at hand is not the right time to get innovative in how you’re addressing it.
The central point being — I think risk is ill-understood everywhere, but there’s a conflated sense of risk in higher ed, and people outside the marcomms sphere will assume that when you’re stewarding a mighty, generations-old brand, the risk aversion mentality of the lower rungs of the ladder should be applied to everything.
Which is — well, safe, which is I guess the point, but it means you never get to climb.
One tactic I’ve used to have risk conversations in the past is a causal chain approach: acknowledging that there’s a level of risk in what you’re doing, but asking the other party to unpack with you where the risk actually resides. Is there a high probability of a negative outcome, or is a negative outcome the result of a series of increasingly improbable events?
What’s the negative outcome they’re worried about… and, step by step, how does one arrive there? Sometimes there’s a probable risk — and change is needed — but sometimes you find that the path to the actual problem is so long, and so unlikely, that the benefit of a more readable piece, or more functional marketing, is worth accepting a very slight chance of a bad outcome.
It comes up when people conflate audiences — what if somebody on a lower rung sees something intended for an audience on a higher rung? It’s a legitimate concern, but in an increasingly crowded media world, are we evaluating that risk effectively and well? And what benefits are we losing by gearing higher-rung needs down to lower rungs?
An understanding of the ladder, though — that different things, for different audiences, may ask us to look at risk differently — that feels like a narrative I should try to advance in my conversations.
Getting back to the ladder metaphor, there’s a lot left there to unpack as well. There are safe and unsafe ways to use a ladder (I am, in the context of my organization, a certified ladder user, I have taken a specific ladder safety course and am now allowed to use ladders). There’s how you situate the ladder, what you lean it against, what it’s resting on… man, you can just ladder-metaphor all day. But I’m happy with the height/view/fall element for now.
…starting with the problem as I see it, poking at how putting internal messages on external challenges isn’t a great solution, making a case for how it adds value across the board, and here we are at the “how”.
I don’t think there is a single “how.” Saying there’s a right way to do it is like saying there’s only one kind of sandwich. There are all kinds of sandwiches for different times and different purposes, from crust-off PB&J to triangle-cut church-basement egg salad to six-foot party hoagies.
I like sandwiches as a metaphor: they’re a delivery system for content, but the method of conveyance is also vital. The bread is part of the package and part of the experience. Jamming tuna salad into a wrap is very different than putting it in between two slices of toasted rye; in the same way, a photo essay on Instagram is a different experience than the same set of photos in an email. The sandwich is the message! It’s Marshall McLuhan, but tasty.
I’ve gotten a lot of interesting and useful feedback since I started this; email, messages from colleagues on various platforms, LinkedIn comments — and it’s clear that there’s an appetite for this, and a general understanding of the value and need. Interesting questions like “are students an ‘internal’ audience in higher ed, or ‘clients’?” Also a lot of compassion for the people who need to be communicated with — students, staff, faculty.
As somebody who wants to spend time in this space, figuring it out at the faculty (academic unit, not professors) level and in a way that coheres with both broader (university) and narrower (department/school) plans, I’ve been using the last month to try to get some principles to cohere. These are truths for me, and not universal ideas.
For reasons detailed below, I wind up leaning in a certain direction for channel, format and content… but my answer may not be your answer.
I’m also focusing on students — the largest audience, and also the one with the widest array of frequently conflicting needs. But I think it all adapts/scales to other audiences as well.
Every single thing below is contentious. If I’d been smarter about this, I could have gotten months of content by breaking out each item in a bit more detail for a zillion short entries instead of this marathon.
Sidebar: It’s hard to know what’s true about Generation Z audiences.
The fun thing about investigating marketing is that the people who tell you what channels to use are usually marketers. So I can easily find data that proves Gen Z is gaga for email… from a company that provides email marketing services. Gen Z mainly just watches videos… says a company that captions videos. And so on.
The bread: what conveys your content?
It can’t be social media.
This is pretty obvious for me — social media can enhance a communications strategy, but it can’t be the communications strategy for internal audiences. First, there are equity issues: you can’t force a student to be part of a third-party, for-profit system with privacy and security practices you don’t control. It’s a minefield ethically, and from a security/privacy standpoint. Second, there’s that internal/external divide again. Can you set up channels specifically for internal audiences on social? Sure! It’s done often, and effectively: there’s no reason the campus’ physical plant team can’t set up a Twitter account to broadcast where they’re at with ploughing after heavy snowfalls, or the wellness team can’t try to spread positivity on Instagram. But outside of narrowcasting, I have a hard time seeing myself counseling, say, our faculty setting up a parallel set of social feeds for our internal audiences without the chance of mass confusion with our external channels.
Also: social media is work. It can look fun, and tends to get discounted as a zero-work bolt-on in plans, but it takes time and care to write content and craft graphics — to increasingly distinctive specs — for the four or five “must-have” channels to bat the circuit.
Being in-flow is the challenge…
Social media has a lot of momentum on its side. It’s where people are already, and it’s much easier to push something into somebody’s flow where they are than to try to pull them into taking an action they normally wouldn’t. Our student society is hugely successful at reaching our current students on social — far more than the faculty’s social channels — because they have a single, clear, isolate purpose for social media: to communicate with current students. So not being on social feels like we’re missing a step, and not fishing where the fish are.
…but being on social doesn’t mean being in-flow.
That said, social media presence doesn’t ensure social media attention. Just cutting and pasting a paragraph and tossing it into Insta with a stock photo of a duck won’t get you seen / liked / etc. And, see above, social media is work. And not just one-off effort. If you’re not maintaining a constant presence with high engagement, the key channels will disfavour you algorithmically, putting you into a “death spiral” where you’re being delivered to fewer people, which means less chance of engagement, which means you get delivered to even fewer people…
I’m not saying social media as part of an internal comms strategy is a bad idea — but it’s not a light idea, and it can’t (for equity reasons) be your sole method. You can lean in and do it well, consistently, and with commitment, committing a lot of capacity and effort. But it’s a serious investment, for specific services. I don’t think it’s a mass-comms tool.
I like apps, but not as a sole delivery vehicle.
Our faculty has a great bespoke app for our students. I really like it — and I’ve invested time and effort in driving attention and use. I’m all in on making it work — but it’s been a challenge, to date, to get the kind of mass adoption we’d like to see in the faculty.
This is partly a flow issue — the app is, at the end of the day, an out-of-flow push proposition. We’re asking students to open an app of their own volition, in competition with everything else they could be doing on their phone in that moment.
Its killer function is — for me — the fact that it ties into our learning platform, so once you’re logged in, the home screen shows your class schedule and assignments for the day. This is where I think we could reach flow with our students — it’s more intuitive and navigable than the mobile view of the learning software’s web presence. So there’s a possible future where it becomes the natural place for our students to go periodically through the day to check in — and while they’re there, see announcements, chat in various discussion groups, and use other offerings like the ability to communicate directly with course advisors, the student services team, etc.
While we’ve put some time and effort into it, I think it will take a concerted commitment of money/capacity/brainpower to really surge use, and push us past that 50% critical mass of students where we can truly see a step change in adoption and use. It’s not capacity we have at the moment — but the summer is coming.
The above all applies to “portal” sites as well — essentially, offering the same consolidation service as an app, but over time training people to skip directly to the content they need instead of truly engaging with the collateral you’re scattering on other places on the page.
There’s also an equity issue I have some issues with here: not all students have modern phones, and not all students will have top-notch service with loads of data to play with.
Ultimately, I think it’s email.
I know, I know. Boo! Email! Nobody likes email. Very few people wake up in the morning aching to check the email. But… everybody checks their email anyway. It’s the closest thing to a dependable in-flow tool that we have; it’s effectively mandatory, completely controllable, and segments amazingly.
It also doesn’t have to be a slog. If you commit to it, you can create email content that’s essential, enjoyable and compelling. That’s — again — work. But it’s not out of the question.
And I think it’s newsletters.
Boo again! But having lived in newsletter systems and non-newsletter systems, I think your odds of being read are about equal either way, and newsletters have the following benefits:
It makes content wrangling systemizable: the person running this system can set up processes for sending content in, and managing content on deadlines.
It removes the Darwinian aspect of more attention going to the better e-mail senders
It institutes flow control and diminishes overall email volume
It can provide a consistency and reliability in format and expectations
If it is your ‘essential’ channel, readership will stabilize over time
You can create and manage expectations around newsletters. “You will get one of these a week and you’re expected to read it” is a simple message, and easier to absorb/digest than “we’re going to be sending dozens of emails a week on various subjects at various times, and also posting in other places, so watch out.”
But I never read newsletters!
“_____ sends newsletters, and I never read them” does come up a lot. I hear that. I am also a newsletter-deleter. But I am also a newsletter reader, when I know that the newsletter contains information that’s pertinent, time-sensitive, and appealing.
I also think it’s online.
Note that I’m saying online, not web. I’m a quiet advocate of getting inside-baseball material off websites and onto well maintained internal systems (unless there’s a clear external marketing purpose to the material, but even then, I’d argue for adapting rather than repeating…).
Essential dates and deadlines
Policies, processes, and forms
Archives of prior newsletters
Ultimately, most of your stuff (see “Content/COPE” below)
I’m a big fan of portal-type pages: put things where it makes sense, then have a consolidated index where things are organized and graphically easy to find and get to. A topic for another time.
Event calendars are hard to build and hard to evaluate.
They feel essential in theory. There’s so much to organize it’s so hard to get a view of everything in one place! Surely a calendar…
But a good calendar is a bearcat. You need something that allows multiple parties to enter information, categorization, a way of managing multi-day events as well as short-duration events, and ideally a way of exporting feeds that can repopulate specific calendars in specific places (see “Content/COPE” below, again).
And then you have to get people to use it. Or not? I’d argue that a contemporary calendar is more of a repository than a destination. It’s a place to put your events, but trying to get people to spontaneously drop by an events calendar on a regular basis isn’t going to get a lot of traction.
Again, a topic that deserves more time, in time.
The Stuff: what goes in the bread?
This is a needs-based exercise, not a branding exercise
We’re squarely in the communications camp here. I think this is an area where brand and values can sing, but as a background context that drips — it’s ultimately about serving an audience. Start with them: poll/focus group your students and ask them what they need. Keep an open line with your boots-on-the-ground, student-facing staff: where are the current points of confusion and stresses? What can you help with now?
Ask the people what they want is a good start, beginning with your target audience but also the people they serve most often. If somebody is getting a dozen calls a week asking them to explain ____, this is a good sign that some communication needs to happen on that point.
Brand infuses all of this, but doesn’t outshine it. Graphics, text, all of it can lean into an overall harmony of message and conveying in institutional mission and purpose (and should), but the information comes first, and the infusion afterwards.
You need a permanent home base for vital content.
Email is where I lean as a vehicle, but email is also ephemeral. The vital information needs a home online: bookmarkable, 24/7 references to key dates and deadlines, administrative policies, etc. But also for your past emails — even just exporting to PDF and maintaining an archive list — and…well, everything, as we get into below. Portals, and finding not-your-main-website places to store information, is a long-term must.
Nobody sees anything that isn’t meant for them.
If there’s one cardinal rule in all of this: don’t waste people’s time and attention. That’s one of the reasons I’m fond of email — it segments beautifully. You can send email to all students, or just upper-years, or all staff, or only faculty, or just early-career faculty… if you’re willing to put the time in, you can create a dizzying array of segments to make sure the essentials are being shared.
Theory again collides with work here — these lists have to be conceived, created, and also maintained. This is effort, and while it’s easy to envision a coat-of-a-thousand-colours approach where you have newsletters for every segment imaginable, the practical component of making and maintaining those lists — to say nothing of curating the content for each — is nothing to sneeze at. And updating it is a double bearcat.
There’s a sweet spot where things are targetable without being too burdensome to maintain, though. The more people feel like you’re delivering material that matters to them, the more attention you’ll hold and retain.
Balancing the essential and the ephemeral
There’s a natural and eternal tension here; the age-old battle of the urgent vs. the important. Students should know when their application to graduate is due, but should that be a top item for two months leading up to the application due date?
Or should a late-developing talk happening tomorrow be the vital information, and the essential information have its own “key reminders” section further down?
There’s no easy answer here — see below — but my tendency is to put the fast-expiring items close to the top, and the long-term reminders further down.
Everyone’s stuff is important to them.
This is the toughest pill to ask people to swallow — nobody thinks their thing is unimportant, so asking them to put their thing into a pool with all the other things is galling. The corollary, though, is that everyone shouting at increasing volumes, constantly, is not tenable either. So organizing things into a set approach — stable, coherent — is the most community-minded way to go about this.
I think there’s a huge ancillary benefit here: de-siloing and contextualizing units that might normally be charging ahead with an exclusive focus on their KPIs.
COPE is dope.
Create once, publish everywhere. It’s a key philosophy in web design and management, and the central case for an email/web strategy: if content has an authoritative, editable home, it can be maintained in one place and reflected in others. This leads to the big content idea for newsletters…
Index and point…
On the COPE front: everything should have a home that isn’t an email. You don’t need all six points for a student to follow for their application to graduate — just that your application to graduate is due _____, and to follow the process here: ______.
This, for pretty much everything: events to an events calendar, funding and scholarship announcements to a list of them and their criteria, and so on.
…while being engaging and entertaining.
This seems like an impossible balance, until you bring framing into the picture. Not extravagant, elaborate mechanisms, but a lead-in graphic and paragraph. Peppering a few contests or swag giveaways throughout the thing. I ran a “Pets Of…” series, with student-submitted photos, in a prior newsletter for ages, with an amazing uptick in use.
You need a sandwich artist.
Jumping back a couple weeks, and a bit further up here: the work gets shortchanged and will always get shortchanged. “It’s just a newsletter” will be the default position of… well, everybody. The natural pull will be to put top talent on outward-facing things; the graphic designer and the writer and etc. will be back on the Viewbook and campaigns and this will just become somebody’s side-desk job. Fight this.It’s harder to make routine things interesting than it is to make… interesting things interesting.
Investing in something that sings, initially, will go a long way to helping encourage an institutional commitment to the resource. The people with the knowledge may not be the people best suited to craft the content in a compelling way (nor should they be expected to be! Different people are good at different things). Those resources need to be there, and reliably.
What do I need to know now > what must I know in general > other information
We get down to “what’s essential right now” pretty quickly. This is why processes should begin with the audience themselves and the front-line staff: they know what’s critical, where there’s urgency and confusion, and how to rectify it. What problem am I solving? is a good question for construction every week, or at whatever interval you’re releasing.
Remember that most people won’t see your pictures.
Most mail clients now do not load images by default, which means you can either come up with text that lives without visual support (recommended), or find slightly cheaty ways to try to encourage people to load the images (see the “Pets” idea above).
The ol’ retail switcheroo
Periodically, when I go into Peak Capitalism Paradise to buy a 40-lb. tub of mayo, I notice that stuff’s been moved. I’m forced to change aisles, look in different places for things, and break the mental conditioning that drives me to exactly the same spots every time I visit. This doesn’t turn me off to the point that I stop going — but it shakes me out of patterns and makes me notice things I haven’t noticed before.
So I’m intrigued by the idea of periodic format swaps — now events are at the top, but soon it’s key reminders, then student club notices — but not having tried it, I’m not sure what the result would be. It’s a way of breaking the “skim to X” pattern issue, though.
And we have only just begun to sandwich
Believe it or not, I think the above represents… maybe a quarter of what I have rattling around in my head about internal comms channels and content. But I’m clocking 1500+ words at this point, and I think the best I can do — preserving my own sanity, and at least part of my Sunday — is to park it here for now.
I guess it’s pretty obvious at this point that I think internal communications is a big deal. I think it’s undervalued and under-recognized. It’s a behemoth of a challenge. It’s a boulder that you have to roll up the hill, and like Sisyphus, you gotta keep rolling it.
I’m also in the awkward position at this moment about writing about something I’m currently working on, and haven’t actually done to my own satisfaction yet. I’ve had the boulder slide down on me a few times, and am slapping chalk on my hands for the next attempt.
And — man, this is a lot of qualifiers, sorry — I’ve got a faculty lens on this. That’s where I’m at. I think the below ideas scale both up and down, but want to be clear about my context.
It’s hard to make a case for it.
And without asserting the need, you’re not gonna. External, measurable drivers — recruitment numbers, fundraising numbers, reputation drivers, rankings — are all happening in the context of a constantly changing landscape, so you have to reinvent those wheels every year, on tight deadlines, in an increasingly complex media landscape. There are also other institutional needs, like a long overdue drive toward meaningful equity in higher ed, that are priorities.
The churn of the job — news reporting, social campaigns, design and video-making — grows to fit whatever space it’s in. There’s no end to recruitment tactics, fundraising needs or research promotion; if capacity increases, there are always more to do.
Internal comms, though — barring a tangible and recognized crisis, this subject doesn’t generate urgency the way the external drivers do.
Internal communications resourcing competes with other priorities.
At some point, somebody’s gotta count the beans. The beans should be counted. We’re stewards of public funds, and accountability’s important. But when the number of beans are limited, and there are no more beans to be found, every piece of new work has to be seen not just as an opportunity, but presenting an opportunity cost. Allocating to one thing means not allocating to another thing.
Can you honestly make a case that buttressing internal communications is more important than recruitment? Than research promotion? Than fundraising?
Because that’s the lens that other people will take. It’s a valid lens!
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this. It’s a matter of looking at other recognized priorities, and seeing how internal comms — as a tier of communications — supports your overall objectives.
It’s not one tool to solve one problem.
I have made this mistake myself. I’m not casting aspersions except on my past self here. But prior attempts at internal comms strategies have been instigated because of a specific problem. So I approached internal communications as a specific way to solve Problem A.
This made the resource allocation part easy — I was handed a problem to solve, and came up with a solution — but ultimately, it was narrow, and while it did the one thing (reduced overall email traffic to students), I think framing it in that narrow way was reductive and ultimately harmful.
People didn’t come out of it seeing benefit other than the immediate solution to the problem, and subsequently, expanding and improving meant going back to square one — even square minus-one, because now there’s a kind of “didn’t we already do that?” mentality that makes it harder to scrap for resources.
It’s not an emergency address system.
Similar to the above — I hesitate to present these things as an emergency-service kind of approach. I’m not manning the ramparts for the death of listservs and email, but I think there’s an argument that something that consolidates and organizes internal messages actually improves the institution’s power to communicate urgently — because it’s now an exception, not the rule.
Brand starts in-house.
If you’re going to take a holistic approach to this, you need to start with a Big Idea. That’s my Big Idea. Feel free to borrow it!
My business case for internal comms begins with that simple statement that plays out across a number of areas. It’s also a jazzy l’il slogan that gets people excited about internal comms, which helps!
From there, I want to come up with some arguments that support the “brand starts in-house” premise, or come up with other positioning of internal communications as essential to the general priority areas: recruitment, giving, equity, research, reputation/rankings.
Having staff, students and faculty aligned on an institutional vision and mandate makes achieving that mandate far easier.
Your school, and possibly your faculty and department, have their own strategic plan and vision for the future. But how do you radiate those values internally? When something has to be done to support Objective A, your chance of that being well understood and well received improves exponentially if people know what Objective A is in the first place.
One of the early lessons I learned in marketing is that sometimes, if you want people to know something, just tell them. If your store is having a sale on mittens, a very large sign in the window that says “MITTEN SALE” is sometimes exactly what you need.
But you need a vehicle to tell people, consistently, directly and indirectly, what the vision is.
Canada is not that big a country at the end of the day. And people talk. A happy, engaged student body is your greatest recruitment tool — even the best messaging in the world, packaged in the most gorgeous viewbook, hosted on the most elegant website, will only get you so far. At some point, somebody’s going to know several somebodies, and if the universal feeling from current students is dissatisfaction, that’s going to make an impact.
I’m not advocating wallpapering — this isn’t about Mandatory Cheer, and it’s all fruitless if the right infrastructure and tools aren’t in place to address the root causes of satisfaction — but internal communications should be viewed as part of that infrastructure, not an externality applied after the fact.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking to Person A and in the course of the conversation discovered they’re doing something astonishingly similar to Person X, and if the two of them had just known they’d have saved probably a few days of work by letting one person do the heavy lifting and hand off to the other to adapt at the end of the day.
Even knowing who’s good at what is immeasurably helpful. Over time, I’ve cultivated a sense of expertise among my peers on campus — if I need some advice, I know I can reach out to somebody and say “how would you do ____?” and get some good guidance. That starts with knowing what people do — and are good at. How much more will you get out of people with, say, casual web duties if they have seen a colleague recently praised for some good work in that space, and can expand their resource pool for simple questions?
One of my early asks when I was at the law faculty was from a faculty member who asked if I, in my then newly minted role, could make a priority of telling people what other people do. He could walk down a hall past a number of offices and see people in them doing things, but had no idea what their jobs were or why they were important.
It’s not great to work in a place where you fundamentally don’t feel like you know what’s going on. Very few people need granular knowledge of what the exam administrator is doing to resolve a problem with remote proctoring in the moment. But knowing that there is an exam administrator, and what the functions of that role are? Super cool.
And — how much worse is it to work in a place where you suspect nobody knows or values what you do? I got sad just typing that! How do you recognize people whose jobs don’t put them in the spotlight — and show how they’re vital contributors to the overall mission?
Still on the ‘“making people aware of what other people are doing” front: unit cross-talk leads to priority smoothing. Silloed units charging forward toward their own KPIs are productive, but without a view of what’s happening in other units, can’t self-modulate to provide room for other units with other needs. The beans are finite, and giving people the opportunity to self-throttle via greater institutional awareness relieves a lot of pressure from the people who would otherwise have to have resourcing conversations with them.
Research motivation and collaboration:
Well-informed researchers that are aware of what their colleagues are doing and excited for institutional success are motivated to succeed — and internal collaboration starts with a general awareness of what’s happening across the institution.
Equity touches every aspect of the university experience, from recruitment that strives toward representation across students, staff and faculty; to alumni engagement; to pervasive impacts on research. The emphasis often tends to be to get people in, but making sure they’re supported and seen once they are at the institution is just as important.
On the flip side, if you’re bringing in several thousand students a year, and have thousands of staff and faculty working with them, you can’t expect them to all be in the same place at the same time on understanding EDII and its importance. How are we continually radiating a culture of equity to people who might be less aware of these issues?
Just the act of doing the work generates outward-facing content. When people see each other and feel aligned toward a common vision and set of goals, ideas spark. Somebody has an idea for an internal newsletter that’s actually the first step toward a major insight for the whole institution. Internal comms content starts to drive ideas for external communication.
It also sparks the kind of spontaneous, organic, genuine social media presence that you literally cannot pay for or fake.
Rankings and reputation:
Having tucked into this a bit over the last six months, I’m told by much smarter people working harder in these areas that a lot of these things are driven by both internal-satisfaction surveys, but also research across the board about top-of-mind presence at other institutions. It’s an unproveable, but I can’t help but think, in a confined sector in a country that’s not that big, internal alignment and vision radiates. Can I prove that a faculty member at one university will be influenced to name another university as a top-of-mind top research institute because their colleagues there seem motivated and collaborative? I cannot. Can I provide ironclad assurances that a satisfied student will speak more freely about their university experience with their friends and relations and improve our national awareness footprint by 0.001% in doing so? I can’t do that. But it’s a strong intuition.
You don’t have to do it all at once.
That’s… a lot. It’s an intimidating amount of stuff, to be honest. I’m intimidated, and I wrote it. I think one thing to remember — before we launch into tools and possible strategies next week — is that it doesn’t all have to be one thing at one time. While it’s a Big Idea, it segments neatly into smaller units, and piloting a staff or faculty approach while thinking about how to resource the bigger picture is a proposition worth considering.
The boulder never stops rolling.
Another mistake from my past — thinking you can set this up and then it’s just an easy-to-maintain project, to be handed off. Why would I think that? The inside of the institution is a huge, complex entity — the size and scope of a small city — so the idea you can just kind of set it and forget it is goofy. Part of the Big Idea framing is that you’re not “solving a problem”, as mentioned above, but setting up an evergreen structure that will need to be fed and watered in perpetuity.
Next week: How to Build a Boulder
I’m anxious about this, but I think I’m going to drill down into a few key areas:
focus on input from boots-on-the-ground staff
ask people what they want
start with redundancies
…and go from there. I’m looking forward to it and scared of it all at the same time.
*if you remember me saying this was three parts, you’re right, but this part wound up so sprawling that I wanted to push the tools piece to next week. I have a job and I’m working on an LLM and have lots on the go! I can only do this on Sundays! Sorry not sorry!