Leadership, Communications and Communications Leadership in Higher Ed

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What is the role of communications and marketing in leading a college or university? Well, that depends.

In today’s hyperconnected, always-on, fake news world, there’s a case to be made that communicators should be at the leadership table as an advocate for how audiences and stakeholders may see any given decision, to help leaders take decisive steps in the face of fake news, rumors and student activism, and to keep the positive, strategic positioning of the institution in mind at all times. There’s also a case to be made that many communicators aren’t prepared for the issues and complexities inherent in higher ed leadership and that this is the job of presidents, provosts, general counsels and research administration.

My answer to this question is truly: communicator, know thyself.

If learning the intricacies of how student disciplinary hearings or Title IX work fills you with panic, or reading the faculty handbook is your idea of an insomnia cure, you are not going to enjoy being a partner to institutional leadership in running the institution. If you are asked for your opinion or are afraid to speak up on policy issues, you don’t want to work with institutional leadership who expect you to have an opinion. If policy debates, ambiguity, position reversals and rewriting the talking points AGAIN are going to make you crazy, this kind of leadership position is going to be unpleasant and stressful.

My point is: figure out what you like, what you are good at, and where you’re willing to grow.

My first institutional communications leadership job also entailed a shift from academic medicine. About a month in, I realized that — while I could handle FERPA and HIPAA chapter and verse — I had no idea what the processes were for Title IX (and neither did most of the higher ed world, which was just starting to respond to the Dear Colleague letter, deal with debate over mandatory reporter status and hire Title IX coordinators). I didn’t know what was reportable under the Clery Act and when a public warning was appropriate. However, I knew that I was going to be called upon to explain these issues sooner or later so I set out to learn everything I could. Four years later I found myself in front of a mock press conference on a seriously sticky Title IX scenario, easily answering tough questions and explaining process. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “I really know this.”

My motivation was to make the institution better, so I set out to learn. I have a problem sitting on my hands when I see something wrong, but have learned how to work collegially so my help isn’t interpreted as criticism or going beyond my mandate. Another type of leader might get their job satisfaction from producing amazing creative work, but would rather rely on their colleagues in student affairs to tell them what the message should be when there’s a major student issue.

My approach suits my personality and skill set, but it might not be a good fit with yours. When you’re talking about a new job, don’t just try to present yourself as the candidate the search committee wants, but ask the hard questions that tell you something about institutional style and expectations. Consider:

· Am I comfortable being a strategic partner in areas outside the traditional brand/marketing/communications scope? Or does learning about research compliance or NCAA rules sound like torture? What is expected and what is my preference?

· What does the search committee expect of the person in this position and do they want change or status quo? What do they think key internal and external stakeholders expect? Does the president or chancellor want your opinion or are you the conduit from decision to creative execution or effective policy communication?

· How comfortable am I with conflict? Do I have a clear idea of what issues are important to doing the job being asked of me and what I should let go? Am I willing to compromise ideal communications or marketing for practical considerations? Am I comfortable saying no to unreasonable or inadvisable requests, or do I want someone else to do that negotiation?

· Am I willing to learn technical information and new fields? Am I willing to monitor the higher education landscape outside of the marketing and communications discipline? Am I a person who can learn quickly, let go of extraneous detail, and make decisions without full information — or do any of these things make me feel like I’m not doing my best as a communicator?

· Does organizational dysfunction make me crazy, or would I prefer that someone else handle it? Am I prone to being sucked into drama? Can I effect change without breaking up the furniture, or do I have to act now?

Of course, there are many other considerations, but starting with your strengths, weaknesses and preferences goes a long way to understanding where you can excel and what kind of leadership you choose.