As universities increasingly brand their academic identity and scholarly resources, seasoned journalists, PR practitioners, and marketing consultants seeking leadership roles at institutions may discover a two-fold benefit: advancement and attractive salaries. Notably, the opportunity to apply for these senior-level positions exists today where, in past years, the experts who carefully managed media awareness and audience connectivity reached the top rung of the ladder holding a director of communications title in hand. Fortunately, this heightened emphasis on branding and communications, especially as a prioritized goal within university-wide strategic planning, offers more room to climb and contribute.
As a consultant of higher education, Drumm McNaughton works on projects that range from maintaining accreditation to short and long-term strategic planning. Serving as the founder and CEO of The Change Leader, Inc., he also provides direction to leaders of colleges and universities as they realize their academic missions. Unfortunately, from his perspective, 98% of all higher education institutions look the same. McNaughton pushes for institutions to discover what makes them unique. He advises, “You need people at a senior level to be able to determine what that message is and to make sure it’s going across all your different channels.”
In 2022, one university in Coastal Virginia committed to doing just that when hiring a Vice President for University Communications and Chief Marketing Officer. Jaime Hunt filled the significant role at Old Dominion University, a public doctoral research institution, bringing with her more than 25 years of experience in areas of journalism, media relations, and higher education. With ODU’s announcement of her arrival, the university also highlighted her leadership of a “newly established University Communications team” designed to offer support and services to the campus community.
Timing for Hunt’s hire seems ideal as the university recently shared its 2023-2028 strategic plan titled Forward-Focused: Where Innovation Meets Possibilities. The prioritized combination of branding, marketing, and communication represents one of seven main goals within ODU’s plan and narrows in on producing unity and inspiration. “For the University to achieve its goals, a fresh approach to branding, marketing, and communications will be required,” states ODU’s website. “With a strengthened infrastructure and expanded staffing, University Communications will build a powerful brand.”
To strategically shape this heightened emphasis at ODU, Hunt and her communications team currently work to define the institution’s visual and messaging standards through the creation of new brand guidelines, while focusing on the training and resources necessary to align communications with those standards set by ODU. The VP also looks to an increased investment in digital and social media channels in hopes of expanding outlets for connectivity and engagement with stakeholders. Moreover, Hunt views the investment as another path that leads to opportunities for departments and units to collaborate. To help make this happen, she envisions “the creation of cross-functional teams to develop and execute communications plans, as well as the establishment of clear lines of communication and accountability for communications-related activities.”
Notably, her approach falls along the guidelines followed by The Change Leader’s CEO. McNaughton believes leaders in the field of strategic communications and marketing hold a unique position within higher education, particularly regarding planning and change. “If you take a look at a major R1 university, what is it that makes them unique?” he asks. “You’ve got to really have a holistic approach to everything you do, whether it be communications, whether it be enrollment, whether it be planning.” To build a university’s brand promise, he encourages leaders to search for the one key factor that separates an institution from the competition — mainly naming what is unique, different, and better. The CEO’s team uses a process of environmental scanning rather than applying a SWOT analysis to plan five to 10 years ahead, all while campus cultures continually shift. Change Leader members consider a university’s ideal vision, mission, core values, and positioning when asking five critical questions:
- Where does the institution want to be?
- How does the institution know when it gets there?
- Where is the institution now?
- How does the institution actually get there?
- What may change in the environment in the future?
By identifying what possibilities are ahead for higher ed institutions, the team can help develop and prepare universities and colleges as they execute their brand promise. McNaughton urges leaders to carefully consider the questions included in the scanning process when framing and rolling out messaging. “You are looking for folks who want to be at your institution,” he explains. “If you figure out what is unique, you can brand that across your website and all your offerings.”
For Hunt, she says she recognizes the responsibility ahead as a communications and marketing leader, pointing to both her VP position at ODU and her professional expertise that serve as key factors to support the university’s strategic plan and implement the Forward-Focused vision. “My team and I work to create a consistent and compelling brand message that resonates with our target audiences and differentiates us from competitors,” she adds. “The heightened emphasis on branding, marketing, and strategic communications at ODU requires us to be more strategic in our approach to telling the university’s story.”
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