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CWC 12: Terry Flannery on higher ed communications and marketing

Terry Flannery, Vice President for Communication at American University, joined Chip to discuss communication and marketing departments in higher education.

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On the most recent episode of Chats with Chip, Terry Flannery, Vice President for Communication at American University, joined Chip to discuss communication and marketing departments in higher education. With 20 years of experience in her field, Terry has had a front row seat to the ways digital innovation changed the higher education system and its departments. Tune in to hear about the importance and challenges of content strategy, audience targeted brand strategy, the future of communication and marketing at universities, and more. The post CWC #12: Terry Flannery on Higher Ed Communications and Marketing appeared first on FIR Podcast Network.

Click to read the full article: CWC #12: Terry Flannery on Higher Ed Communications and Marketing

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: You’re listening to Chats with Chip on the FIR Podcast Network.

Hi, this is Chip Griffin, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I am very pleased to have as my guest today, my good friend, Terry Flannery, the Vice President for Communication at American University, which conveniently is my alma mater. Welcome to the show, Terry.

Terry Flannery: Thank you, Chip. Pleased to be chatting with Chip.

Chip Griffin: How’s that? There’s a lot of alliteration there. A lot of

Terry Flannery: alliteration.

Chip Griffin: It’s hard to spit out sometimes, but in any case. so, you know, obviously there’s any number of things that we can talk about, but, you know, with your extensive background in higher ed communications, I thought that it would be, interesting for our listeners to hear about, sort of the, the multiple roles that one fills when in, higher ed communications, because, you know, you have the, the marketing elements, you’ve got, you know, sports communications, you’ve got, sort of like municipal government communications, right, because essentially a university is a small town, you know, how do, how do all of these things interplay with each other, and how do you balance them out, because it seems like they all require different expertise.

Terry Flannery: They do require different levels of expertise, and usually, the thing you strive for is to be able to prioritize among the constituencies or audiences that you need to pay the most attention to, and those might be different at different times, or based on different challenges, and to do everything you can to integrate across the board.

Your communications with different audiences through different areas of expertise, different media, different channels. so we do have, in the organization that I supervise, at the university, experts who are media relations, social media, print publications, digital, you know, a whole host of, areas of expertise, all the creative services, and you want to try to, make sure that each of those folks is bringing their expertise to bear on the, challenges to be addressed, to do so in the appropriate voice.

And then in the instances where the communications aren’t mine to lead, sometimes I have to influence them. So, for example, American University’s, community Government relations function is really much more focused on The local government and the community because we don’t have as you might be aware representatives in congress

Chip Griffin: Really?

I didn’t know that was the case in dc

Terry Flannery: taxation without representation

Chip Griffin: We’ll save that topic for another show.

Terry Flannery: That is another show but we do have a whole host of issues, to deal with with the city government and our ability to Develop On our campus, on our property, is guided by zoning, regulations.

we live in the midst of a residential neighborhood surrounded by a very affluent community. And so, someone else is managing the day to day, relationship and communications with those audiences, but I work very closely with the person who manages that piece to make sure that it’s influenced by the areas of expertise.

It’s anticipating how it will affect other audiences or other channels and making sure that it’s all working together.

Chip Griffin: Mm hmm. And have you seen this change in the years that you’ve been involved in University of Higher Ed Communications as they’re with, you know, with all of the explosion of digital with, you know, so many different people covering, university life in one fashion or another.

Has that, has that changed how you have to do this coordination?

Terry Flannery: I’d say it’s made it more important. So the, the function has elevated to an executive level function to lead the strategic communications and marketing functions of the university. it’s become more integrated in universities. So over the last 15 years, you’d see where many, many people.

Parts of the organization communicated independently with their constituencies. Now they work at least with some more coordination and integration that’s deliberate, and, across areas of expertise. So you have the whole explosion of the notion of a content strategy. So you’re thinking about content and thinking about how to deliver it or engage with different audiences across.

So those are probably three big trends or changes over time.

Chip Griffin: How has that changed the skill set that you need in order to lead an organization like this or, or, you know, even be a leader within an organization like that?

Terry Flannery: Well, I guess, you know, I, I have a mentor. His name is Larry Lauer, who was considered the best mentor.

father of higher education marketing. for many years, he was at Texas Christian University, in a host of roles, including one like I hold now, government relations, fundraising advancement. He’s done all of that, but he really was one of the first to think about higher education marketing, and he’s an AU alum, and his very first job when he was here in the late 1960s was to work at WAMU, As Susan Stanberg’s first unpaid intern for a show called Kaleidoscope that became All Things Considered one day, NNPR.

but in that job, his job was to run down in the morning and turn on the antenna for the radio station. And then at night to run down in the basement and turn it off again, at the end of the programming day. So Larry’s got this great, great set of stories about how there have been several reso revolutions.

And he would describe the revolution through digital and social media to look a lot like what happened when television came into being and revolutionized radio. So, I’m not sure that it, is different necessarily in terms of the skill set, but I do think that people who lead communications organizations have to be prepared to be open, willing to learn, willing Willing to bring in people with the areas of expertise that aren’t my particular area of expertise, as long as I can trust.

and learn from people who have that expertise. So you constantly have to have the organization doing some refreshing of the areas of expertise that represent those things you don’t have, those skill sets you don’t have. But a lot of the principles, as you know, apply even though the medium might change or be different.

Chip Griffin: Right, yeah, I mean ultimately tools are tools, but you know, it’s the thinking that goes into it I think that really matters. Matters quite a bit and that doesn’t change all that much over time.

Terry Flannery: Yeah

Chip Griffin: And

Terry Flannery: and it means you know that I have to you know have social Media accounts for me personally so I know how they work and understand how they work I have to run around with my kids doing Pokemon Go, which I know you said we wouldn’t talk about, but, you know, if you’re going to use it, you’ve got to understand it, and I don’t want us making stupid mistakes with it as a university that make us look like we really don’t get it.

So you do have to be willing to familiarize yourself.

Chip Griffin: In addition to your role at AU, you’ve had, you know, various leadership positions, in a number of different, organizations focused on higher ed communications and marketing. How have you, how have you seen. The, the role of communications and marketing change in the higher ed universe, if at all, in the last, you know, decade or two.

Terry Flannery: It’s changed a lot. like I said, the role of the CMO elevated to the level of, you know, A university executive is, still recent, but happening with greater frequency. There’s a survey by, CASE, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, on whose board I sit. Full disclosure. but we do a survey every two years of trends in communications and marketing.

And one of the things, a couple of things we ask have to do with, to whom do you report as the chief? Marketing or communications official and, what is your title? Particularly at the private institutions now, more than half report to the chief, executive officer, president, or chancellor at universities.

that certainly was not the case when I started. You know, when I was the very first, marketing director at my alma mater, University of Maryland. I was a one person shop and had to fight for an administrative assistant. And I was a peer with the head of the news Bureau news Bureau and, the publications director.

And that changed pretty quickly. Within four months, I was, supervising, the operation with the idea that we would bring a strategic marketing framework into focus as the, the, The set of principles we’d use to develop the organization. So that one was that 1997. So we’re looking at, you know, almost 20 years now, across the associations that I work with, the American marketing association has a conference that’s gone on for gosh, 30 years now that Larry Lauer was one of those people who, who started it.

And early on, it was a very small group of people. When I first, got involved with the organization in the early 2000s, it was maybe three to five hundred people attending that National Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education. when I left as chair of the, the annual meeting, there were eleven or twelve hundred people.

People at the annual meeting, which is bigger than the AMA’s national conference every year. So the people who work in higher ed marketing are a larger number at their conference than just their annual meeting every year. It’s a really big group of professionals who’ve come into their own, I think, in their higher education organization.

Some of them being raised in the, in the field, others coming from other sectors. There’s more positions open. right now, then, then can be filled by people who were raised in higher education marketing. So, they’re coming from health care, they’re coming from insurance, they’re coming from banking, from other sectors to fill the field.

So, it’s changed a lot, quite a bit. I guess the other thing I’d say, that I’ve noticed is that, we used to be grouped with a function in higher education called advancement, and that is still the case in some universities, but the common organization used to be a vice president for advancement who was primarily a fundraiser, and I might be reporting to that person along with colleagues that do alumni and development work.

And in this day and age, we’re seeing more, Chief Marketing Officers who do not report through an advancement function. They report separately in our colleagues like they are at American University. we have a great colleague who’s the Vice President Development and Alumni Relations here at American, Courtney Searles, and we’re partners.

But that’s a recognition on the university’s part that, we are not just serving interests that relate tactically to communications for fundraising purposes. They also have strategy and tactics for the university brand overall. for a whole host of enrollment, considerations that wouldn’t normally have been in the advancement area.

So not to get too deep in the weeds on higher ed organizations, but the point is, we’re serving many more institutional roles, not just the fundraising piece, and that’s been a big change too.

Chip Griffin: You know, one of the things you referenced was, the sort of the publications function and, and, and, and, you know, I, I guess in, in modern terms, you would call that content marketing, right?

and content marketing is certainly one of those big buzzwords today, you know, have you seen, obviously, you know, universities forever and ever have had alumni magazines and things like that, but, but how have you seen content marketing impacting, you know, what you do with it all?

Terry Flannery: Well, we’re trying to get our colleagues in the organization to think about, how the content that they develop for one audience and one channel could be repurposed or changed in format to engage another set of audiences that would give it wider distribution.

that has technical challenges to it, obviously, but it also has, hurdles that relate to ownership. So, we’ve got an awesome magazine team at American University, and they’ve thought in revolutionary ways about how to change from basically a print publication, which we still maintain, with a digital piece.

And they’ve worked us through the format of several different kinds of apps, and ways of trying to get that content developed digitally. but we’re still, Struggling with the hurdles of trying to get that content over to social media in a way that can be engaging and can be measured through the tools that the content is maintained it, and the tools are different for different parts of the, content for measuring.

And so it feels, a bit. Stratified, I guess is the best way to describe it. It’s not as holistic a view of the effectiveness of our, our content as I would like to have. we’ve had a great, speaker and consultant come in, Tim Jones at Chatham University in New York that, is an expert on content strategy and he got, he came in and talked to our whole team as well as other communicators at the university about how to think about your content in terms of audience voice.

And brand strategy, what messages are you hitting? Inventorying those, thinking about the first purpose for them, and then starting to rethink the purpose for other audiences. And then following that in a way that we can track. So we’re trying to, think differently about that content strategy. And it’s really important, but it’s going to take us, more time and more, willingness to learn.

I think I’m a part of many professionals who have traditionally done media relations. Or publications. Or, You know, content in a variety of other forms.

Chip Griffin: You mentioned measurement, which is something that’s near and dear to my heart. I know. I’m a data nerd and love that sort of thing. And then you also touched on, you know, the importance of understanding the audience that you’re trying to reach and things like that.

you know, with everything that you’re doing, there are so many different potential audiences, right? Whether it’s, you know, prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty, neighbors. you know, the business community don’t, I mean, so, you know, how do you, how do you manage all of that and try to look at each, each, not necessarily piece of content, but each activity that you’re doing and try to appreciate how it impacts on all of those different audiences.

Terry Flannery: I don’t think you can do them all at once. It’d be nice if you could, but we have 12 stakeholder audiences that we are. I’m going to address and the first thing I learned is don’t try to do them all at once. You will diminish the effectiveness of all of it. So we focused on different audiences at different times.

When American University first developed our brand strategy, we used research to determine which requirements most needed attention first. And so there was related to enrollment, especially for prospective undergraduates and graduate students. A real lack of awareness. of American University outside of the Washington region.

A sense of even where it was or what its strengths were that needed to be built. And we also had a, lack of differentiation. People would group us with two other institutions in the Washington region, who shall remain nameless, but are well known, with many of the same programs. And if we’re allowed to be grouped together, at least at that time, you might think of them only in terms of perceived.

reputation and two of those institutions have longer histories, have been at this longer than we, and, we would end up number three, most of the time in that game. So you have to differentiate and say, these three institutions are not the same. The people who go to school here, the people who work here.

Our faculty, our staff are entirely different communities. Here’s how they’re distinctive. so we focused on those pieces with undergraduate prospective students and graduate students first. we also focused second on alumni. we see a really, challenging, dearth of, Brand loyalty. I don’t know how else to say it.

you’ll remember this. We’ve, surveyed, at the beginning of this process. And then again, to begin to benchmark or measure how we’re doing with our brand strategy in both 2009 and 2013, we asked alumni if you had a chance to do it all over again, would you enroll again for your college education in American?

And about two thirds say yes. And about two Well, less than 10 percent say no. Those are not necessarily unusual in and of themselves. But almost a quarter in both surveys say, I don’t know. And for me, it’s stunning to think that you might have invested four years of your life and the equivalent, of tuition and fees, something on the order of a quarter of a million dollars and not know whether you would do it all over again, which speaks to the value proposition and whether or not people are engaged in a way that they have the opportunity to know about the university’s value proposition.

Or could that be influenced in a way that does change the perception over time? So we had to engage alumni. They became the second most important audience. So we focused on those two audiences above all else first. And, put behind other, priorities. Certainly they get tended, the other audiences, but not with the same focus of resources.

Or time or attention or content as those two audiences first.

Chip Griffin: And it seems to be that, you know, that underscores the need for continuous marketing, to your audiences. So not just, you know, You know, once you’re done being a student, you know, we sort of hand you off to alumni relations and go down that path.

There’s a need to build brand awareness of what the institution is presently like with alumni.

Terry Flannery: Yep, I like to think about branding. There’s something like 26 definitions of branding in the marketing literature. depends on who you talk to. subscribe to, I guess. But one of them that I really like talks about branding as a measure of the strength of your relationship with your customers.

So if you think about students as customers, which I know we don’t like using that term much in higher ed, but let’s think about them that way for a minute. But they are,

Chip Griffin: they’re spending money, and so that’s the definition of a customer, in my book. So you want them

Terry Flannery: to be aware, over the span of a lifetime, from the first time they hear of you, throughout the student life cycle and into their time as alums, you want them to become aware.

More engaged more supportive and more loyal and so we’re using our brand strategy to cultivate that over time That’s a really important measure for us

Chip Griffin: you know over the the time that i’ve been able to to I guess work with you is not the right term because I haven’t worked. I’ve volunteered but you know Sure Whatever whatever word we want to apply.

you know, you’ve done a number of innovative things But I think you know one of the ones that stands out to me You is, you know, in the whole public policy sphere of late, there’s been, you know, discussion about the value of higher education. and, and that’s something where I think American University has been a real leader.

in the industry in trying to, you know, demonstrate that value in, in a more tangible fashion than perhaps has typically been done by leveraging technology. And I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about that.

Terry Flannery: I would have to say that one of the things I’ve come to love about American University is that something’s going on here in terms of the culture that allows us to be as innovative as we are.

We get to do really original, really. risk taking. Some would say crazy things. Naming a brand strategy after Wonk, you know, some would say was a high risk thing. It met all the requirements. It’s done a great job. But, the We Know Success site to demonstrate the value of degrees is another one of those examples.

And people who are part of this community are willing to take reasonable risks that address, real issues. And then, you know, when you do something like that, There were, the returns are greater. the, we know success site was designed to be a first of its kind. We wanted it to be a first of its kind and we wanted, I guess we recognize that if you look at your own institution, you know, for you, it’s American university.

For me, it’s university of Maryland. If you look at LinkedIn. Data about, return on investment or some of the surveys like Forbes or money that use pay scale data to derive information about graduate salaries. They are working with a tiny fraction of our alumni with voluntary surveys. So I think when I, when we were first developing the We Know Success site, we knew that only 1100 people had filled out the survey on behalf of American University for LinkedIn about what their earnings were.

By virtue of the deal that you engage in with LinkedIn. So that’s a really skewed view of what the salary, the economic return on the investment is, you know, who knows who those people are. We, on the other hand, knew that we had a graduate, Census, a survey of all of our graduates within six months of graduation for 85 percent of our graduates at the graduate and undergraduate level.

That’s a really high return rate. We do a great job with that. So I knew we had a distinctive advantage to begin with, that we had data that was highly reliable and very valid to represent what our graduates were doing in their first destination after they graduated. So we said, let’s figure out how to deploy that.

So we developed a site that would be, Great with data visualization that would follow trends you would see in some of your favorite news and publications that have, interactive data displays, that can be customized and searchable in the way that interests you. And we took all of the data from our graduates to look at, outcomes by degree level and program.

So your undergraduate degree was in political science. Yes. And communications, did you do both?

Chip Griffin: I did not, no. I just, just straight poli sci. Or as I like to say, a B. A. in B. S. Right,

Terry Flannery: so you could search for, the, first destination results, employment, admission to graduate school, or income for, graduates with a B.

A. in political science at American University. We give you data over the last four years, and you can look up where they’re working, by employer, what sector they’re employed in, what their income ranges are, then you can also look at where they studied abroad and what internships they held for credit that probably influenced, their success and outcomes.

So you don’t just get the really high level data. 91 percent of our students are employed in grad school or both. You can drill down to a very specific degree program or level, and it’s done a very interactive, highly visual.

Chip Griffin: you know, I guess as you look at that, how do you sort of see the importance of, of national or international public policy issues to the higher ed community?

And how much of, how important is that to your own particular role? Because that, you know, the return on investment of higher education is just one example, I think, of the issues that confront higher ed right now. But is that, is it really more at an industry level or is it something that individual institutions need to concern themselves with?

Terry Flannery: In the words of one of our presidential candidates, they’re huge. Yeah, I think if you look at all the data from the Pew studies, every American institution has lost faith and trust from the public. Higher education is one of the last To lose it. I think the military still got it. but we’ve lost a lot of public trust.

among as have other cherished American institutions, the demand for accountability is probably directly, directly related to the investment people will make in higher education. It’s usually the 2nd, most expensive investment. Most students and families will make in their lifetime. and it has increased particularly at the public universities.

at a very rapid rate, well above inflation. Private institutions, when you adjust for inflation, it’s actually pretty flat, especially when you account for the tuition discounts that we provide to students in order to make it accessible. but the, I think the important issue is that that, perception of the rising cost and accessibility of higher education has made it A much more accountable environment, for us in terms of public policy.

So the incoming is coming from all different directions. You know, right now we’ve got another renewed interest in the level of university endowments. Americans, endowment has just reached a level over 500 million, which puts us in the top, I don’t know, 160 university endowments in the country. But there are some with tens of billions of dollars in their endowments.

they’ve been at it a little longer than we have, and, that we are not required like foundations to spend 5 percent of our endowment income every year. And there are senators in the United States Senate who would be really interested in having us do that and have us do that for More, financially needy students, that’s one set of incoming that we’ll see this fall.

there’s another group locally, the, district government in Washington is interested in whether or not endowments should be tapped to provide payments in lieu of taxes for non profit universities. I love the fact that everyone thinks that endowments are giant piggy banks that can just be cracked open whenever there’s a need, but that’s not the case.

We haven’t done a very good job of helping people understand why endowments exist, that they’re there to help level the good times and the bad. They should spend, we have a board policy of spending 5%, no more than 5 percent every year of that income, but that’s so that the institution will last for decades and centuries.

but helping people understand that and understand that a lot of that endowment was given for specific purposes and can’t be redirected because the donor has a specific purpose. That’s a whole conversation that’s going on just in one aspect of public policy. There’s Title IX, and there’s, the whole issue of sexual assault, prevention and response that has been enormous on our campuses.

There’s the issue of diversity and inclusion, and everything that’s happening nationally in the United States in terms of, racism, justice, and, Policing, all those conversations are happening, off our campus. They come right onto our campus with our students every year. So, you see a lot of, conversations about, what universities should be doing on those two issues in particular.

That there’s direct and immediate influence by the White House, by the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, you know, are all involved in, keeping the heat on us. Because we receive. federal funds through financial aid to our students.

Chip Griffin: Now we’re just about the end of our time, which is unfortunate because we could talk forever, I’m sure, but a number of different topics.

but, you know, I, I guess I’d, I’d conclude with if you could take that crystal ball that I know you have sitting on your desk, and, and take a look to the next, you know, five or so years in, in higher ed communications and marketing. My crystal

Terry Flannery: ball,

Chip Griffin: yes. Yeah, so if our listeners could see, there is sort of a crystal ball ish kind of thing being held up in front of the camera.

But, so if you pulled out that crystal ball, you know, what, what changes do you see? What trends do you see developing, you know, in the next three to five years or so?

Terry Flannery: I think the question of value and return on investment is going to change. Be with us for that entire period of time. And we darn well have better created a better understanding of what that value is over time.

A lot of people think the financial model for higher education will change. We’re not sure exactly how, but it is becoming too out of reach for too many students. and I am sure that since price is a really important component of any marketing mix, that, Me and my colleagues will have to be part of that conversation about what do we do differently.

we’re in a period of tremendous activism on our campuses that I think will continue to make higher education be in the news and the news media, which will affect perceptions of universities and colleges all over the country, all over the world. and I think that that will, continue to be something that drives our, the understanding and appreciation or not of our sector too.

Chip Griffin: Well, that’s great. We’ll have to come back in three or five years and, and see if those predictions come true. All right.

Terry Flannery: I’m on. I’m happy to, to join in five years.

Chip Griffin: In the meantime, it’s, it’s been great having you on the show today, Terry. Again, my guest has been Terry Flannery, the Vice President for Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.

Terry Flannery: Thanks, Chip. We’re always proud of you here at your alma mater. Thanks very much for the opportunity.

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