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When it comes to organizing your marketing/communications office, there is no single model that fits all institutions. There are some best practices, but how they are deployed largely depends on factors such as institutional size, department size, institutional culture, public vs. private status, whether the department is positioned as a service or strategic unit, where the chief communications officer reports, and the institution’s strategic plan and goals.

In this post, I’ll write about how a team’s organizational structure can help institutions to take advantage of the 6 Rules for a Highly Effective Marketing Team, which Deb Maue, vice president of strategic marketing and communications at Columbia College Chicago, shared previously on this blog.

More and more university presidents are bringing chief communications/marketing officers into their cabinet, ensuring that they will be part of discussions about strategy and tactics and be able to help develop plans to respond to the increased challenges to higher education and the need for institutions to differentiate themselves. According to joint research conducted by the The Chronicle of Higher Education and SimpsonScarborough in summer 2014, 57% of the top campus marketing leaders are members of the university’s cabinet and 49% of them report directly to the CEO. This number will continue to rise.

Whether marketing communications is centralized or decentralized often varies based on institutional size. The larger the institution, the more likely there are decentralized units, with a central university-wide office serving the highest and broadest level. Yet, breaking down silos is critical, even at large universities. Developing effective content strategy, integrating workflow across all areas of the marketing communications functions, and leveraging digital channels requires eliminating silos and merging groups that once focused exclusively on print or digital.

I have worked at two private institutions of differing sizes and structures, and as a result implemented different organizational plans for their communications offices. I generally follow these steps when beginning an organizational assessment:

  • Listen, learn, listen more: Meet with every member of the team, at least twice, and listen to them. Give team members at least two questions in advance they should be prepared to answer at the first meeting, and let them talk about any other challenges and opportunities they see within the organization.
  • Assess: From the notes taken at the initial rounds of meetings with the individual team members, develop a brief SWOT analysis.
  • Brainstorm: Find the change agents and progressive thought leaders on the team, and brainstorm a number of scenarios. This is both a good way to test how the team may react to various changes — and a way to learn more about inner-team dynamics.
  • Read: Read every team member’s job descriptions.
  • Apply: After taking all of this information and putting together a draft plan, share and then apply it.
  • Test: When applying the new structure, be open and fluid to tweak as necessary. Be prepared for staffing changes, which may or may not give you further opportunities for refinement and redefinition of existing positions.
  • Change leadership: I follow Dr. John P. Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change.
  • Refine: This step almost never ends. Continually assess and refine as organizational needs and staffing evolve. Write the new job descriptions and rollout to the team individually, and then as a whole.

At an institution with nearly 7,000 students, I took on a 30-person division that reported through the vice president of enrollment management and was largely recruitment-focused. We needed to broaden our support for advancement and the five schools within the institution, and break down silos between web, media relations and print. After a restructuring, I eliminated a standalone web group and there wasn’t a single position solely focused on the web. This was a risky strategy, but got the entire staff to think about and incorporate their work into the digital space. See the before and after organizational charts.

At a university with 2,900 undergraduates, we had a much smaller team that was more editorially focused. I reorganized this group into two teams — content strategy and creative. In addition, I created new positions to add to the team, one of which would become a project manager to oversee all projects and workflow for the entire office. See the before and after organizational charts.

SimpsonScarborough has a library of organizational charts available, as does CASE for their members in their Info Center.

What practices have you found work well to create an ideal structure for your department?

Rachel L. Reuben is a thought leader and consultant in the field of marketing and communications, with nearly twenty years experience in higher education. She has worked for the State University of New York at New Paltz, and more recently as the associate vice president for marketing communications at Ithaca College and the vice president of communications at Colgate University.

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