I am a huge Warren Zevon fan. Most people don’t know about him, but have likely heard his song “Werewolves of London” or at least heard it sampled by Kid Rock in his song about summer in Northern Michigan. Zevon wasn’t a great singer, but he was a brilliant lyricist. Funny, cynical, and sad, Zevon could say things in his music with poetic irony.
“Thank you my friend.”
That is the last line in the last email I received from Associate Professor of Theatre Stephen Landon. I just learned this morning that Stephen died, far too soon for someone who had so much to give this campus and this community.
When I arrived at UM-Flint in 2001, I had never heard of the Critical Issues Forum. My first introduction to it was by Joanne Sullenger who was the Vice Chancellor for Development. Joanne always had University Relations design the brochure for the event. So when it was time, Joanne called me into her office for a meeting. What I thought would be a rather quick tell-me-what-you-need-and-when-it’s-due kind of meeting, turned into several hours of explaining to me the importance of the Critical Issues Forum. Always impeccably dressed in a business suit (I don’t think she ever wore the same thing twice), Joanne would explain to me all of her thoughts, plans, and concerns for each of the speaker events. Peering over her glasses at me, Joanne would say, “Jennifer, you know, everything has to be absolutely perfect at Critical Issues.” She was right.
It is time to end awards for marketing in higher education.
What is the point of awards anyway? Yeah, I know:
- Recognition from colleagues
- Institutional Pride
- Morale-building for staff
- Validation of work
But really….beyond the award ceremonies, what do these awards actually do or mean for your operation? While it is nice to preface a sentence with, “Our award-winning marketing department….,” is it really a game-changer in terms of your purpose and goals?
My argument is no.
In this era of increasingly tighter financial resources, entering for awards seems, well, a little irresponsible to me. I know that sounds harsh, but how do you justify spending money on award submissions when that money could be put to use for marketing or staff development? It just doesn’t add up. All of higher education, particularly public universities, faces tougher scrutiny regarding tuition increases and uses of general fund dollars. So, you have to ask yourself, if you were testifying before your state legislators about your budget, how would you explain the line item about marketing awards?
If you’ve entered awards competitions recently, you can’t help but notice that there is a category for EVERYTHING. The cynic in me can’t help but think that it’s nothing more than a money-making operation to have a bazillion categories to try to get more submission dollars from would-be nominees. Plus, the crazy preponderance of categories reminds me of that trend of “We’re All Winners.” It’s like awards were made for the generation where everyone gets awards for just trying as opposed to having fewer awards with higher standards and criteria. When everyone is special, no one is special.
I have experienced the judging of awards a few times. All of my experiences were not that great. Rooms dominated by group think. People with their own biases and experiences judging the work of others. It’s really not a very sound, scientific, or inherently fair process. Quite frankly, I don’t know how it can be–we work in a world of subjectivity when it comes to receiving approval for our work. ROI should be the focus of any marketing initiative, but sometimes I get the feeling people are creating stuff for the sake of winning awards.
Before you assume this post is written by some bitter person who has never won an award, it’s actually not true. Full confession–during my career, I have spent thousands of dollars on award entry submissions. Occasionally we win. I have to admit, it is fun to win. For a moment, you feel like the Tom Hanks of higher ed. You feel that all your blood, sweat, and tears were worth it because someone thought the work that you and/or your team did was worthy of recognition. You feel cool. And then the moment fades, and you have another piece of hardware to dust or stash away.
The thing is, by using social media, it is much easier and less costly to get the same feeling of validation about the work that you do. Sharing ideas and success stories, and then finding out that colleagues around the country like your work and ideas feels just as wonderful as winning. And, the bonus of sharing ideas through social media is that you actually have meaningful conversations about the content of the work, as opposed to making snarky comments about who won at the awards ceremony.
So, who’s with me? Who’s ready to say “no” to award-entry madness? Try this exercise for just one year–whatever you spent on award entry submissions last year, spend that amount on some aspect of your marketing or staff development this year. Your staff (especially the poor slob who gets assigned coordinating all the submissions to the ridiculous specifications of each entry) will actually end up thanking you if you invest in their education. And if you do that, everybody wins.
This summer is the season of change in the Office of University Relations at UM-Flint.
The 5th floor of the Northbank Center is a bit emptier as we bid farewell to three staff members. All wonderful contributors and good friends, off to pursue excellent opportunities and leave their mark in the world.
Now it’s time for a little staffing remix.
It’s been some time since I’ve had to do the amount of hiring we are doing this summer to make up for the people who have moved on to bigger and better things. It’s hard, slow work and you spend most of the time hoping that you are creating a dream team, and not hiring a nightmare of an employee. You know what I mean–the person who looks good on paper, sails through the interview, and then spectacularly crashes when assigned that first major responsibility.
Oh, the stories I could tell.
But, what’s different this time around is that the world of higher ed marketing/communication is so different. We are not doing our jobs the same way we were three years ago. Everything has changed, and everything is going to keep changing. I just read a book that told me I need to hire digital natives, and avoid digital tourists. As a digital tourist who has to ask for a translator and directions on many occasions, I see the wisdom of this argument. The best leaders always hire people who are, most of the time, much smarter than they are. Maybe we all got Michael Scott on “The Office” wrong. Except for Dwight, everyone is smarter than Michael. Ooooh…genius.
So, who and what do you hire in the digital age? Most importantly, anyone you hire from this point on much have experience and understand social networks, plus web and mobile trends. I’m talking about everyone in your operations, from the administrative assistant on up. In my humble opinion, there is no room for anyone who still believes that social networks are for kids and that IPads are merely expensive gadgets. You need true believers who see that society is changing, and it’s up to us to not only keep pace, but to see a bit into the future.
That said, here are six tried and true hiring tips that have worked for me over the years:
1) Talk About the Past – The most valuable thing I ever learned in a “How to Hire Great Employees” workshop many years ago is to always ask people to give specific examples about what they have done. In fact, I almost always avoid questions that ask people about the future, such as “If you get this position, how would you handle ________?” It’s better to ask if they have ever encountered certain situations, and how they responded, or to ask about a particular project they worked on and how they measured the success. Asking about the future is really an opportunity for someone to spin a tall tail about something they might do instead of something they’ve done.
2) The Quiz – Grill candidates during the interview about what they know about your institution. You might think that sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how few people research the place they want to work before their job interview. True story–I once had a guy applying for a position as the university web developer who didn’t even look at the web site before the interview! Any candidate who does research about the place they’re going to work shows that they care and are willing to invest themselves in your enterprise.
3) Homework! – We’re higher ed, so it’s time for a little assignment! The best way to get a sense of a person and how they might approach a project is to give them one. I know this method works. The last time we hired a web developer, we had him assess the university website, and develop a planned approach for making changes to it. The person who wrote the most extensive, thoughtful piece got the job, and he was a brilliant hire. That piece he wrote really sealed the deal for him and us.
4) Do You Have Any Questions for Me? – This is a biggie. When it comes to that point in the interview when you ask if they have questions, extra points go to the candidates who actually have true inquiries about the position and your organization. I always take it as a bad sign when a candidate says, “No…I think you answered all my questions already.” That is just not possible. This is a moment to find out how serious the candidate is about the job, and how much thought they have put into the interview. It signals to you that this is someone who is serious and intentional about working at your shop.
5) More Than References – I don’t know about you, but when I ask someone to be a reference, I know they will say glowing things about me. I tend to view references skeptically. References are cheerleaders, and cheerleaders cheer the team even when they’re losing. I always try to find out a bit more about the person, online or through trusted colleagues at other organizations. It’s worth it to go the extra mile to learn all you can about potential members to your team.
6) Avoid Stepfords – Do your best to not hire duplicates of yourself or your current staff. Every hiring opportunity is an opportunity to reinvent the brand of your unit. If you can, during the interview, try to find out what innovative ideas they are using in their work. This is especially important in the digital age, since so much changes quickly. Try to find someone who can fit in with the group, yet has their own unique views and perspectives. If you keep hiring people to reaffirm what you’re already doing, your department will not grow. Finding someone a bit offbeat who has an original approach will refresh everyone on your team.
And here’s a bonus tip: whenever you can, find someone who is clearly passionate about what they do. You want someone to geek out whether it’s over design, communication, marketing, or technology. You can teach people all kinds of stuff, but you can’t instill passion. These people go the extra mile and immerse themselves in their calling. Passion is what separates the good from the great.
Good luck with your staffing remix!
I really am lucky.
There are lots of things I truly enjoy about my job, but I think one of the top five things has to be the annual Critical Issues Forum. The Critical Issues Forum (or CIF) is a gift from UM-Flint benefactor Frances Willson Thompson that allows us to bring leading experts to campus every spring for a series of presentations on the most pressing topics of our times. We’ve hosted such bold-faced names as journalists Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Bob Woodward, and John Stossel. We’ve learned from leading scholars like E.O. Wilson and Jared Diamond. Politicos across the ideological spectrum have been on campus, including Newt Gingrich, Madeleine Albright, George Mitchell, and David Gergen. And the list doesn’t just end there….we’ve also heard from the likes of economists Jeffrey Sachs and Joseph Stiglitz; educator Geoffrey Canada; Filmmaker Ken Burns; and healthcare experts Atul Gawande and Arthur Caplan.
Yes. We’ve been rubbing elbows with the smart and famous.
So, aside from a Flickr account full of these people on campus, what can a marketing genius do with this type of event to enhance the positioning and brand of a university?
For a regional campus like UM-Flint, the value of having leading experts on campus is priceless. Like our big sister in Ann Arbor, the presence of the people who interact with faculty, students, and community is a bit of delightful surprise. The ability to host events like CIF helps to position the campus as a gathering place for the useful exchange of analysis and debate of the critical issues facing our world. It shows that these leaders are accessible, interacting with the campus community.
Every year we try to build upon the experience, so that as we tell the story of UM-Flint, we can use the examples from CIF to help illustrate that story. We hire a professional photographer for these events to capture these moments. Then, we use these photos across a broad spectrum of print, web, and social media materials. If we’re trying to entice students into our Journalism program, we have a strong, specific way to entice them through the use of CIF as an example. Same for students pursuing majors in economics, business, and healthcare. These experts help with the targeting of communication to specific groups of students in a very real, meaningful way.
One of our little success stories this year involved Twitter and Gwen Ifill. For the first time ever, we established a Twitter presence for CIF. We began following the speakers who were on Twitter. As it turns out, Gwen Ifill is a fairly avid tweeter. We began following and retweeting her posts. Prior to her visit to campus, she even tweeted that she was headed to UM-Flint. When she arrived, she told me that she noticed “we were all over Twitter.” During her session, we live blogged her comments on Twitter, creating an open conversation with others who were following along. Ifill was great about the entire experience. In fact, in one of her blog posts for Washington Week in Review, she wrote about her visit to Flint.
We’re already planning for CIF 2012, and looking for more ways to leverage brand with this world-class event. And if you’re lucky enough to attend UM-Flint, you never know who you’ll meet.
Snake oil. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it?
Just what kind of brew is boiled down essence of snake? Can you drink it? Do you even want to?
It seems that vast quantities of snake oil are being consumed across higher education in the form of vendor products that promise to cure what ails you, but in the end has little effect on the root of your issue.
Sales pitches are by nature tough to sit through. The best of these vignettes always make you feel as if you’re not alone with your problem, and that although you are clearly a Higher Ed Thought Leader, the only thing keeping you from Higher Ed Icon Immortality is one product.
If only throwing money at problems really solved problems.
There are very few products that I have used or seen used in higher ed marketing that have truly delivered on the promises made during the initial pitch. If anything, I am highly skeptical of most products. Whenever a potential vendor promises that your staff will have less work, run the other way. It never happens. Plus, even worse, that statement usually translates into a one-size-fits-all template that compromises your brand, making you less relevant to your audience.
Is there someone who is not jaded about these products that can show me something that isn’t snake oil, but an actual feel-good elixir for success? Where is this elusive product and how has it improved your marketing?
I don’t know about you, but I’m less and less likely to invest in an outside product. During these tight economic times, the snake oil is getting harder and harder to swallow.
Is there anyone out there who works for a university that doesn’t have diversity as a core value? I didn’t think so.
Chances are, your university is full of councils and task forces devoted to diversity. Diversity is in your institution’s mission statement. Your leadership heralds diversity in nearly every speech and official document.
So there you are in the university’s marketing and communication department trying to do your best to show that diversity matters. You make sure your university sponsors community events that highlight diversity. Your publications are full of a racial mix of people. You highlight and showcase all of the events your campus does every February.
While all of that is important and worthwhile, it is a stereotypical approach to diversity. And no one is guiltier of this than university marketing and communication departments, including the one I oversee. While doing research for this blog post, I laughed out loud when I read about a student who was asked what he thought about college marketing materials. His reply was, “It looks like only minorities and hot chicks go to college.”
The problem is, I think in higher education, although we have the best of intentions, we get diversity wrong more than we get it right. In marketing and communication, it appears that we think diversity begins and ends with skin color. In higher ed, diversity is a period at the end of nearly every sentence. I don’t think we really back up the claim from a marketing and communication standpoint. In fact, I would argue that we generally avoid a serious and honest discussion of how we depict diversity in all promotional materials, thus, doing a disservice to the very core value we claim to own.
I recall a marketing firm that worked with us saying that, while diversity IS important (flash to Jerry Seinfeld saying, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”), it is not something that should be part of brand messaging because audiences expect that to be part of a university. That statement has haunted me for a few years now. Really, it has disturbed me.
Quite frankly, we cannot assume that people expect us to embrace diversity. I don’t think people even know what that truly means, especially suburban, middle-to-upper income, straight, physically-able, Christian, caucasian people. Yes, I said it. Diversity seems to matter the most to people who find themselves categorized by society, while those who are in the majority do not see it as a priority. I’m generalizing, but let’s face it, diversity has been generalized and marginalized. And those of us who control images and messages reinforce that through the use of stock approaches to dealing with diversity. So assuming that “people know we care about diversity” in the way that we know people expect us to have lights on in buildings is irresponsible and damaging.
Here’s what’s troubling: A random Google search I did on marketing/communication diversity plans revealed that our collective idea of achieving diversity in our marketing/communication pieces is to make sure pictures for publications are diverse.
But really, what are we as marketing/communication professionals really doing to address diversity in our materials beyond these staged photos of students with different skin colors laughing and talking on campus? Is there a university out there who has struck the right balance? I really want to know and learn from them.
Also, I think we are limited in our scope of truly embracing diversity as something beyond race and gender. How do we showcase true diversity in terms of socio-economic, gender, religious, generational, and sexual identity? Is anyone in their marketing meetings having these conversations? For instance, has anyone out there focused on marketing and promoting to the LGBT community in a meaningful way? Is your administration accepting of having overweight people in your brochures? When was the last time someone with a disability was featured prominently in your advertising campaign? And how can a mere image really convey the differences that exists within all of us?
I am sure we all remember a time, being in meetings, going over drafts of brochures or rough cuts of commercials, when the appearance of the people was discussed. Someone looked too this or too that. As always, we are pleased with ourselves when we achieve the perfect racial mix in photos. In the approval process, no one is happy until we can create the perfect watered-down, palatable-to-all-and-impressive-to-none marketing materials that seek to not offend.
Maybe it’s time to start offending. For instance, if we claim to stand for diversity and someone doesn’t want to come to our university because we decided to put individuals who do not fit the conventional perfect person cookie cutter image, does it matter if that person chooses another campus? Are we willing to trade a realistic approach to diversity for tuition dollars? Does this sound cynical or true?
Please understand–I am not trying to be self-righteous. I think there is much we can do. I have had a bit of an epiphany on this topic, and I think it’s time to show the advertising world that we can embrace the notion of diversity in all its forms and truly celebrate it. Instead of assuming that everyone knows we care about diversity, what if it became a real centerpoint, something authentic that exposes students to the potential to know people completely different than themselves? Instead of whispering, let’s shout.
There is one campaign we did at UM-Flint back in 2004 that I think gets at the issue of showcasing diversity in an authentic way. We asked two students who were spoken word artists to write their own poetry describing their UM-Flint experiences for a television commercial. I am really proud of the commercials we produced with those two students, which I think showed some truth about who are students are, what they stand for, and the role the university played in their lives.
But, we haven’t done much since. I am vowing to change that.
I want to show all the people that make-up UM-Flint and say that this is who we are. This is what they bring to our campus community and why it matters. Diversity for us will be multi-faceted and complex. We will work harder at telling the backstory of all people to highlight what really makes us different, not just the stuff on the outside.
Until we put ourselves out there, we’re really no better than a vapid fashion magazine that focuses on the superficial. If someone is going to lead, it should be higher education. Instead of talking diversity, let’s do it.
Photo credit: Flint Journal
We did it!
I am happy to report that the University of Michigan-Flint achieved a big first over the weekend: two commencement ceremonies in one day.
This was a huge endeavor taking months of planning (and worry) in order to make the big day for our graduates go smoothly. The reason we went to two ceremonies stems from surveys we have done with students about commencement. The number one concern for students is to be able to invite many family and friends to their big day. With growing enrollment, we were also experiencing growing ceremonies, meaning that students would have to be limited to four or possibly fewer tickets for the ceremony.
After much research and consultation, we decided that two ceremonies were definitely in order. It was determined that we would do it all on the same day to keep costs as low as possible since we could re-use most of the items for both ceremonies. And that is exactly what we did.
So, here are some fun, behind-the-scenes facts about the May 2011 Commencement:
- The dark blue draping around the perimeter of Perani Arena was a new addition this year. In previous years, the draping has been red, and our ceremony had the look of an Ohio State commencement. Not the look we wanted.
- Tape is the most essential ingredient for any commencement.
- There was a site survey done at Perani the week of commencement to go over logistics and any other change.
- This was the first ceremony in a long time when ice was not on the floor of the arena. Definitely a good thing!
- Set-up for the two ceremonies began at 6am with my arrival and the rest of the main Commencement Committee staff arriving around 7:00 a.m. I was nervous we wouldn’t be ready for the ceremony at 11:00 a.m., but our dedicated team of professionals pulled it together in no time.
- Underneath the stage, we stored tons of stuff, including bins, extra water, props, and a host of other things we might need during the ceremony.
- Stephen Landon, a faculty member from the Theatre Department who teaches set design, helped prepare the arena for the ceremony. Stephen’s involvement has improved the look of the arena immensely!
- The photo booth that was set up for graduates in the smaller arena was a last-minute idea the week of Commencement. Thanks to Jessie Hurse for pulling that off!
- We always bring extra supplies of everything in case we run out. That’s why Facilities delivers a huge truckload of stuff to Perani Arena the Friday before the big event.
- The floral arrangements are all from Vogt’s Flowers in Flint.
- All day long, we supplied our many staff and volunteers with food. It is a long, physical day setting up and taking down Commencement, so we keep people full and happy.
- During the ceremony, staff and volunteers began either working on the next ceremony, or dismantling elements of the entire day. The work never stopped.
- Robes for the faculty were brought in from a regalia company that supplies formal academic dress. We had 11 boxes of robes for faculty. The faculty put on the robes in the “robing room” next to the door of the main arena.
Let me know what you think of our Commencement ceremonies. We’re always looking for ways to improve, and we would love to hear your ideas.
And…it has to be said again and again: the Commencement Committee at UM-Flint is an amazing, hard-working group of people who are really devoted to the notion of student centeredness. I am fortunate to have them all as co-workers and friends.
A fast blog post with two things to get creative juices flowing….
And, I recommend subscribing to the Educational Marketing Group Brand newsletter. Always good ideas, including the idea above. Check it out.