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Tell Your Story

With public perception of higher education in decline, communicators have a particularly important role to play.

July 13, 2021
 
 

As national COVID-19 case rates continue to drop, optimism over a return to normalcy continues to rise. This may be especially welcome news in higher education, an industry that has shed more than 650,000 jobs, more than 600,000 students and $183 billion in revenue over the past 15 months.

A diminishing public health crisis is indeed good news, but it’s worth noting that the pre-pandemic picture in higher education wasn’t particularly rosy. In 2019, higher ed was under fire for any number of reasons: cost, lack of diversity, free speech, curriculum, you name it. That year, Gallup said the public perception of higher education declined more than any other industry they track.

It may be tempting for communicators to assume these issues are someone else’s problem. After all, tuition rates, admissions decisions, rules for campus assemblies and the nature of the curriculum aren’t exactly under our normal jurisdiction. But this view is shortsighted. Even if we feel the problems facing higher education are someone else’s responsibility, or even if we feel they are overblown or otherwise irrelevant, there is no mistaking there is a worsening perception problem facing our industry. And who is pressed into duty when there is a perception problem? Hint: it’s not the controller’s office.

There is a silver lining. We know that there is immense value in what takes place on college campuses. We have students on incredible journeys of actualization and discovery. We have faculty creating knowledge to solve humanity’s most pressing problems. How do we work to narrow the perception gap and bring the reality of what is taking place in our industry into the public conscience?

We may do well to remember the words of the late advertising mogul Howard Gossage, who reportedly said, “Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” It’s still true today, and it applies to higher ed, even if the media landscape has changed: people will read or watch or listen to what interests them, and sometimes it originates with a university.

This is a bit of a good news-bad news situation for communicators. The good news is all you have to do is be interesting. The bad news is all you have to do is be interesting. Make no mistake, communicators will play a critical role in addressing the problems in our industry, but only if we commit to being interesting by taking a hard look at our tactics.

Many of us have expanded our communications mix to include storytelling, but not as many have defined what that is. Or worse, we slap the term on everything we produce because it makes us feel trendy. The news release, letter from the dean on your website or campus beauty montage are all useful content, but seldom should they be classified as examples of storytelling in themselves. These tactics often lack one of the classic components of a story we learned in our English literature class, or they fail to deliver the critical element each story must contain: emotion. Good storytelling in higher ed takes the facts of the life and work of our institutions and adds an emotional layer to it to influence our audience.

We inform with facts; we influence with emotion.

This is critical today, because as the Gallup survey illustrates, the facts alone haven’t been enough to move the needle on perception and build the brand of our institutions or our industry. We will need to do more to influence public opinion, and authentic storytelling can be an effective tool in that work. At the University of Notre Dame, a unit specializing in universitywide storytelling is about six years old and works with units across campus to uncover stories that speak to larger institutional priorities. The goal is to leverage owned media properties to stimulate broad conversation and increased awareness of key university endeavors in research, scholarship and service. The tactic at the center of this strategy is the long-form story: pieces of often several thousand words of text, brought to life through compelling design, video and photography. To be clear, long form is only part of our mix and isn’t the only way to tell a story. Authentic storytelling can be accomplished through a variety of ways on a variety of platforms.

Our unit’s efforts help to define storytelling in the strictest sense, but it’s far from the whole picture. The university still incorporates a robust earned media enterprise and produces a lot of branded content to serve a variety of needs and audiences. These tactics help us tell a macro-level brand story that is greater than the sum of its parts. In all we do, one goal remains constant: we want people to read or watch or listen to what interests them, and we want to have it originate with Notre Dame.

As we communicators look for new ways to tell our brand stories, so too must we look for new ways and new timetables to measure holistic success. Influence takes time, and thus, we must be committed to changing perception over the long haul. This requires a long-term, concerted effort -- one that is collaborative across departments, colleges and units and backed by leadership, politically and financially.

As we emerge from the pandemic, the stakes have never been higher in communicating the value of American higher education. The challenges facing our industry may not be in the normal scope of communications, but telling the story that changes perception will be.

Andy Fuller is director of strategic content at the University of Notre Dame.

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