Higher Ed Marketing & Communications Theory

Roll That Boulder: Making the Case for Internal Communications

And we roll into the third part of four thoughts on internal comms in higher ed.*

This is a four-part series on internal comms in higher ed:

Part One is about the hugeness of the issue;
Part Two is about the hazards of conflating channels;
Part Three, here, makes a case for resourcing this;
Part Four is a sandwich-themed run at a solution.

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.

Alumni giving:

Student happiness and alumni giving correlate. So, I mean, see above / ‘nuff said.

Staff efficiency:

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?

Staff morale:

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?

Priority smoothing:

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?

Content generation:

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.

That way!

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
  • assume disinterest

…and go from there. I’m looking forward to it and scared of it all at the same time.

February 7, 2021

Various Artists, “Somewhere Between: Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism & Shadow Sounds of Japan, 1980-1988
Gacha Bakradze, “Obscure Languages
David Bowie, “Heroes
Four Tet, “Parallel/871

*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!

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.