In higher education, communication is the new marketing

Five principles for effective communications that build trust
By: | November 4, 2020
Getty Images, Westend61Getty Images, Westend61

This fall, many university campuses found themselves closing down after opening up only a week earlier. UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ encapsulated the necessity for the sudden reversal this way: “After weeks of developing a very elaborate plan for a hybrid model in the fall,” officials decided “it was just too risky to teach face-to-face.”

Ken Pasternak, Two by Four

Ken Pasternak, Two by Four

In a conversation with a faculty member at a private university in San Francisco, I learned that faculty, staff and students were receiving COVID-related communications from different and uncoordinated sources. The faculty member recalled an exchange with her students, during which her students replied, “that’s not what we heard.” The resulting confusion, amplified by the urgency of the moment, gave both faculty and students doubts about the administration’s trustworthiness.

This crisis has pointed out that for a university, or any other large organization with diverse stakeholders, communications is more important than marketing. The more consistently and clearly an organization communicates its values, intentions and actions to its constituents–especially in uncertain times–the more highly it will be regarded. This is true even when the news it must communicate is decidedly bad.

Sparse or inconsistent communications erode trust. A key conclusion of a Simpson Scarborough study in August is that only one-third of surveyed students say they truly trust their universities. Insufficient communications are a key reason for that erosion of trust. Students report feeling left in the dark when they say: “Uncertainty is confusing and scary.”

Uncertainty has a halo effect on the image and reputation of the schools overall. In the same study, 41% of students reported that their overall opinion of a school that communicates well is better than it was before the pandemic. Conversely, with communicators rated as fair to poor, only 13% reported having a higher opinion of the school, while 64% reported a worse opinion than before.

Even as plans change, communicate the change and the rationale for it.

If university leaders prioritize a few best practices, they can become much more effective communicators in both good and challenging times. My experience has allowed me to develop five principles for improving communications, which in turn, will build trust in higher education brands.

  1. Start with your highest beliefs and values. At the University of Kentucky, President Eli Capilouto tied his first communication to students returning to campus to the school’s mission with the title, “Staying Fixed on our Mission.” Many other campuses have achieved this with “compacts” for appropriate risk-reducing behaviors on campus.
  2. Communicate early. Harvard University was the first institution to announce a campus closure on March 10, 2020, with a direct message from President Lawrence Bacow. While this news resulted in some outrage and skepticism that the institution was acting prematurely, “That died down quickly,” President Bacow reported.
  3. Communicate good and bad news in the same voice. In late August, Kentucky’s Capilouto notified the entire campus community that a second wave of testing would be conducted with any student involved in fraternity or sorority life. The President’s tone and manner was similar to his original mission-oriented announcement. He wrote: “Let me be clear: this is not an act to blame the students who reside in these facilities or who belong to these organizations. It is important to move quickly to keep students safe and to mitigate potential spread of the virus.”
  4. Communicate all plans and contingencies. Even as plans change, communicate the change and the rationale for it. A best practice is to communicate regularly what has changed and what hasn’t from week to week or month to month. At Duke University, faculty, staff, students and families were fully informed of the process by which they would arrive on campus and get tested, then stay sequestered until test results came in.
  5. Don’t just post on the university web site and expect people to see it. Reach out actively through social media and email, and drive people to the assets you create. President Michael Sorrell of Paul Quinn College has used his Twitter feed as an active look into his life and thoughts as a leader. By sharing his day to day thinking, he is building an intimate relationship with his audience.

Effective communications are essential for brand trust. Communications are more important than marketing because they represent a service to the community in addition to an opportunity to express a brand promise. It is a practice that enables an institution to demonstrate its vision and intention in action, every day.

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Ken Pasternak is president and chief strategy officer of Two by Four, a strategy + creative agency with offices in Chicago and San Francisco. He works with C-level executives in higher education and other industries.