How to balance support for institutional and presidential brands

For many institutions and their boards, the focus needs to be on maintaining leadership stability and shoring up funding.
Teresa Valerio Parrot
Teresa Valerio Parrot

With July marking the traditional start of a new fiscal year, many institutions are welcoming new presidents and senior leaders, with some colleges and universities replacing presidents who had long and transformational tenures. While high profile leadership has undeniable benefits, it also has implications for brand management, particularly when a president’s brand usurps the institution’s.

There are countless examples of very strong colleges and universities that hire well-known or charismatic presidents but,  during their tenure, the images of the institutions stall while the reputations of the leaders continue to grow. In the case of a change in leadership in this uneven position, the board may need to fill a public leadership void beyond their governance responsibilities in the short-term. The next president will need then to establish their own position and rebuild the brand of the institution.

Building the internal and external reputations for a leader and an institution is a lot of work for the institution’s communications and marketing departments and requires time and trust from key audiences. For many institutions and their boards, the focus needs to be on maintaining leadership stability and shoring up funding, which means the rebuilding of reputation will distract from the necessary tasks at hand.

Collective strength

Whether institutions are introducing new leadership this year or planning several years out, now is the ideal time for boards and presidents to have a conversation that may initially feel awkward but that ultimately provides an important agreement for clear direction for those responsible for building the social media presences and the thought leadership platforms for the president.

That discussion focuses on the need to balance the image and reputation of the institution with that of its senior-most leader. Discussing the need for this balance allows the institution to capitalize on the social and political capital and networks the president brings while also preserving and growing the stakeholder relationships in play for the campus.

I would argue that in a model in which both the president and institution’s brands are encouraged to thrive publicly, their collective strength can buoy the institution until the arrival of its next president and a smooth transition in leadership. This approach also honors the legacy of the outgoing president and the work they successfully completed alongside their board.

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Therefore, in the early stages of a new president’s tenure, is important for boards to provide clear guidance to the president and their communications team to position the president and their brand as aligned —but not synonymous—with the brand of the institution. That allows for support and outreach on behalf of the president by the institution while also advancing the image and reputation of the campus under their leadership. Should the president depart on their own terms or involuntarily, the brands of each can stand alone and damage or impact to either can be minimized.

Binding with the board

An imbalance in approach can at best represent missed opportunities and at worst stall the lesser brand’s future potential. For financial decision-makers and visionaries for institutions, either scenario is a mistake at a time when all campuses are spending increasing dollars and human resources to capture enrollment, donations, research funding and public support. The public perception of a weak leader or a weak institution can prevent progress on these important and pressing priorities.

Presidential succession planning should also include the development of a strong internal leadership pipeline. The rationale is that a deep internal talent pool means that boards can draw from strong candidates for interim president roles and possibly consider promotions from within to maintain leadership and business continuity.

Similarly, allowing cabinet-level and senior leaders to develop their own brand and thought leadership allows the institution to have additional voices for outreach and public scholarship. These social capital ambassadors can help to ease the transition for an outgoing or incoming president and backstop the image and reputation for the institution during changes in leadership.

While we often talk about the role of board members as focusing on vision and finances, there is a component of their responsibilities that include maintaining the reputation of their institutions. As such, it is important for boards and presidents to partner together to establish expectations for the balance of image and reputation that binds the president and board together.

Teresa Valerio Parrot is founder and principal of TVP Communications, a national public relations and crisis communications agency  focused solely on higher education.

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