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The role of marketing and communications in higher education has evolved significantly over the past 20 years. Increasingly, university leaders are recognizing the value of a strong brand and understanding the role of marketing as a driver of strategic growth. Traditionally, marketing communications efforts have been rigidly siloed, with marcomm offices providing a service model rather than strategic, enterprisewide thought leadership. This decentralized approach can undermine a university’s effort to deliver a cohesive, consistent and persuasive message to our audiences and stakeholders.

Often, decentralized communicators are aligned with their departmental or divisional priorities, which often supersede universitywide goals and objectives. There tends to be little or no laddering of goals and priorities to the institutional level, and metrics of success are not standardized or reported. I suspect this is especially evident at larger institutions with communications teams spread across academic colleges. It’s not unusual to see massive duplication of effort while simultaneously seeing very little coordination of marcomm strategy. The university’s messaging and visual identity are often not universally leveraged, and the lack of oversight by the central marcomm office often leads to discovery of messaging that is out of alignment with the university brand.

This mode of operations has been increasingly rejected by savvy higher education leaders. According to a 2018 report from Simpson Scarborough, the move away from decentralized, highly siloed marcomm efforts is seen at institutions of all sizes, from land-grants to small privates. These institutions recognize the importance of a mature marketing model -- one that is omni-channel, audience-centric, data-driven, relational and coordinated across the organization.

Centralizing marcomm efforts can be a massive undertaking that is not for the faint of heart. As you consider shifting to a more centralized model, there are a few things to consider:

  • Make a strong case. Moving to a more centralized or center-led approach undoubtedly has many benefits; it behooves marcomm leaders to make a strong case that this effort will help the university achieve its strategic goals. A few strong benefits for centralization include a decrease in duplication of effort thanks to increased collaboration, a greater scale of economy to address staffing shortages caused by departures or medical leaves and the ability for unit marketing and communications professionals to be managed and led by industry leaders.
  • Don’t underestimate the challenge. Change is hard. A massive change like moving toward center-led communications is not for the faint of heart. The transition is complicated, challenging and time-consuming. Unit heads and the existing decentralized staff often view this change as a loss of control, and those who are being moved into a new unit may feel as though they are losing their relationship with their current department leader. In some cases, individual roles are eliminated, which is anxiety-inducing and unpleasant for all involved. Meanwhile, the department leader may be concerned about gaps in service and lengthy waits for projects. It is critically important for the central office to build and maintain relationships built on trust and mutual respect. The central office must work hard to maintain its agility and responsiveness while clearly communicating goals and priorities to unit leaders. Success or failure requires relationships and the ability to have candid conversations with everyone involved.
  • Welcome new faces. It’s also critical for leadership to recognize that those moving into the central office will feel like outsiders at first. Ensuring that they feel like respected and valuable members of the team is of critical importance as you navigate this process. Expect anxiety and even fear from the newly centralized staff members. Remember, they didn’t apply to work in your unit. They were moved, likely without much input. As you formulate a new mission and vision for the central unit, engage both existing and new team members in that process. Ensure that the new members of your unit have the opportunity to speak into policies and processes. Finally, consider renaming your unit entirely so that everyone is technically new to the unit.

In an environment with increasing competition, optimizing a university’s marketing communications efforts is critical. Efficient and effective operations are essential to staying competitive in our dynamically changing industry. This approach may not be right for every campus; however, it is worth evaluating at schools both large and small. If centralization makes sense for your campus, brace yourself for a potentially multiyear endeavor that will traverse sometimes rocky roads. However, if you stick with it and navigate the process, you will come out on the other side with an approach that best serves your institution and the people it serves.

Jaime Hunt is vice president and chief communications and marketing officer at Miami University of Ohio.

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