21 Questions About Academic Center/Department/Unit Communications

Websites, social media, e-mail, and coffee.

November 18, 2014

I have two intuitions about center/department/unit communications.  First, that communicating is an essential part of our work.  Second, that we (or I) have no idea about what constitutes effective communication practices.  

Communications starts (I think) with goals and audience.  What are your communication goals?  Who are you trying to communicate with?   Embedded within goals and audience is a world potential missteps, miscalculations, and misadventures.  

A related intuition is that academics (like myself) are particular bad at communications.  We are bad at communications because we think that we must know what we are doing.  We think that we learned to communicate in grad school, or by teaching, or in our research.  We make the mistake of thinking that scholarly communication, teaching and writing, somehow qualifies us for other types of communications.  We think that effective communications must be a matter of common sense and effort.  We believe that since we are consumers of other people’s communications that we will know what to do when it comes time for us to get our message out.   We (or I) are probably wrong about most things we think about communications. 

Below are 21 questions about communications that I’m hoping will spark some discussion.  The answers to all these questions will of course be, “it depends”.  It depends on your audience and goals.  It depends on your local context.  It depends on your budget.  It depends on your priorities.  It depends.   Fair enough.  My hope is that in asking the questions I can get clearer in my own head about what I don’t know and wish to find out, and maybe generate some discussion and insights.

The questions:

1.  How much of our time should we be devoting to communications?  What percentage?  

2.  How much of the total time of a given department, center, division or school should be spent on communications?

3.  How much money, or percent of the budget, should a given center, department, or division spend on communications?

4.  How does one determine the value and importance of various communications platforms?  For instance, the center/department/school website vs. social media vs e-mail vs. print publications?

5.  Is it possible to get a unified view of all the communications data?  Is there a platform that bring together the analytics around web, social media, e-mail, print, and other communications efforts?

6.  What is the correct balance between internal and external communications efforts?  What platform works best for which audience?

7.  In the campus environment it seems that the best form of internal communications is to have a discussion over coffee.  How many coffees should one plan to have in a month, in a week, in a day?

8.  What is the difference between communications and marketing?  Why does higher ed seem to be okay with the former and sort of squeamish with the latter?

9.  How important is social media vs. traditional platforms (the website, newsletters, e-mail), in a communications strategy?  What sort of social media works best - blogs, twitter, The Facebook (I just like calling it that), Instagram (which I don’t understand), Pinterest (which I also don’t understand), LinkedIn, Google + (just kidding), YouTube, what else?   

10.  If a department / center / unit does engage in social media, what should be the voice?  The individual and quirky voice of the members of the unit, or a more authoritative (and restrained) voice of the organization?

11.  Are there great examples of a terrific website for a department / center / unit (say a Teaching and Learning Center) that you know about and could share?  How do we know what makes for a great website?

12.  Should a department / center / unit have someone working their whose full-time job is communications?  How big should the organization be before that communications person is necessary?  Or is it better to leave communications work to the departments / units on campus that are devoted to communications and staffed by communications professionals?

13.  What should the frequency and pacing of various communications efforts look like?  How much should the website content change?  How often should we blog, tweet, or post?  How much time should go into a newsletter, and how often should it be sent out?  Does anyone read e-mail newsletters?  Does anyone read e-mail?

14.  How should we think about digital communications vs. print communications?  How should we think about the return on investment (ROI) of in-person communications, such as speaking at a committee meeting or a department meeting or a conference?  

15.  How should we judge the value of external communications?  How do we parse and understand the ROI for different types of external (off campus) outreach, such as articles, op-ed pieces, news mentions, etc.?  What sorts of external speaking or conference participation counts towards communications efforts, and how much (and why) does it count?

16.  How much of a center / department / units communications efforts depend on individual effort, and how much depends on the organizations efforts?  In other words, is communications more about people communicating directly with other people, or is communications more about the organization communicating?

17.  It seems that the goal of effective communications is to generate a conversation.  That any academic center / unit / department wants to have a relationship with internal and external stakeholders.  Is this conversational and relational model correct?   How does that framing change the work around communications?

18.  What is the best way to collaborate with, and learn, from the communications specialists and experts on campus?

19.  How can we get a read on how well (or poorly) we are doing with communications?  Is it about numbers, page views, downloads - or is there some deeper calculus that we should be using to evaluate the success (or failure) or our various communications efforts?

20.  What are the questions that I should be asking about academic center / department / unit level communications?  

21.  What are your questions about academic communications?


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