October 5, 2022

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Chats with Chip: Terry Flannery on Higher Ed Communications and Marketing

Chats with Chip: Terry Flannery on Higher Ed Communications and Marketing

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. Chip and Terry’s conversation covers the importance and challenges of content strategy, audience targeted brand strategy, and the future of communication and marketing at universities.

To kick off the conversation, Chip and Terry consider the rise of content marketing and its influence on this industry. “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 to change in format to engage another set of audiences that would give it wider distribution,” says Terry. Terry admits, however, that measuring this content across the many channels of a university can be difficult.

Since universities must address various channels and audiences, Terry says that communication and marketing departments must identify the most important populations on which to focus. Terry cites prospective undergraduate and graduate students and alumni as the primary audiences for American University. According to Terry, brand strategy helps identify these key populations and create loyalty and engagement. “From the first time they hear of you throughout the student lifecycle and into their time as alumns, you want them to become aware, more engaged, more supportive and more loyal,” says Terry. “We’re using our brand strategy to cultivate that over time.”

Additionally, Chip and Terry draw attention to the ways international public policy influences higher ed marketing. Terry identifies national conversations regarding university endowments, sexual assault policies and responses, and diversity and inclusion as three main pieces of public policy that have an impact on universities and their communication departments.

Chip closes out this episode by asking Terry to consider the future of university’s marketing and communication departments. Tune in to hear Terry’s answer, as well as more discussion on the organization of university’s marketing and communication departments, developments in the field, and specific brand strategies, as well as Terry’s personal definition of brand marketing.

Unverified Transcript

Please review the audio before quoting to confirm accuracy of this unverified transcript.

Chip Griffin: Hi, this is Chip Griffin, and welcome to another episode of Chats With Chip. I’m 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: A lot of alliteration there.


Terry Flannery: A lot of alliteration.


Chip Griffin: Hard to spit out sometimes, but in any case. Obviously, there’s any number of things we can talk about, but with your extensive background in higher ed communications, I thought that it would be interesting for our listeners to hear about the multiple roles that one fills when in higher ed communications. Because you have the marketing elements. You’ve got the sports communications. You’ve got municipal government communications, because essentially the university is a small town. 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 thrive 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 your communications with different audiences through different areas of expertise, different media, different channels.


We do have in the organization that I supervise at the university experts who are media relations, social media, print publications, digital, a whole host of areas of expertise, all the creative services. 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 they have to influence them. 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. Really?


Terry Flannery: Yes. We have 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. 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: Have you seen this change in the years that you’ve been involved in the university of higher ed communications? Has there with all of the explosion of digital, with so many different people covering university life in one fashion or another, has that changed how you have to do this coordination?


Terry Flannery: I’d say it’s made it more important, so 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 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 strategies. We were thinking about content and thinking about how to deliver it or engage with different audiences across different media, 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 even be a leader within an organization like that?


Terry Flannery: I guess I have a mentor whose name was Larry Lauer who was considered the 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, governmental 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 Stamberg’s first unpaid intern for a show called Kaleidoscope that become All Things Considered one day in NPR. In that job, his job was to run down in the morning and turn on the antennae 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.


Larry’s got this great set of stories about how there have been several revolutions of technology in his lifetime, 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. 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 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. 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. A lot of the principles as you know apply even though the media might change or be different.


Chip Griffin: Right. Ultimately, tools are tools, but it’s the thinking that goes into it I think that really matters. That doesn’t change all that much over time.


Terry Flannery: It means then I have to 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 if you’re going to use it, you 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. You do have to be willing to familiarize yourself.


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


Terry Flannery: It’s changed a lot. Like I said, the role of the CMO elevated to the level of 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. We do a survey every two years of trends in communications in marketing, and 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 executive officer, president or chancellor at universities. That certainly was not the case when I started.


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. I was up here with the head of the news bureau, news bureau, and the publications director. That changed pretty quickly. Within four months, I was supervising the operation with the idea that we would bring strategic marketing framework into focus as the set of principles we’d use to develop the organization. That one was at 1997, so we’re looking at 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 started it. 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 300 to 500 people attending that National Symposium for the marketing in higher education. When I left as chair of the annual meeting, there were 1100 or 1200 people at the annual meeting, which is better than the AMA’s national conference every year. 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 have come into their own I think in their higher education organizations, some of them being raised in the field, others coming from other sectors. There’s more positions open right now than can be filled by people who were raised in higher education marketing, so they’re coming from healthcare. They’re coming from insurance. They’re coming from banking, from other sectors to fill the field.


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. In this day and age, we’re seeing more chief marketing officers who do not report through an advancement function. They report separately. Our colleagues like they are in American University. We have a great colleague who’s the Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations here at American, Courtney Surls, 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. 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: One of the things that you had reference was the publications function. I guess in modern terms, you would call that content marketing. Content marketing is certainly one of those big buzz words today. Obviously universities forever and ever have had alumni magazines and things like that, but how have you seen content marketing impacting what you do with at all?


Terry Flannery: 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 to 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 thought in revolutionary ways about how to change from basically a print publication, which we still maintain with a digital piece. They’ve worked us through the format of several different kinds of apps and ways we’re trying to get that content developed digitally.


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 in. The tools are different for different parts of the content for measuring. 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 content as I would like to have. We’ve had a great speaker and consultant come in, Tim Jones at [inaudible 00:13:05] University in New York that is an expert on content strategy, and 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 methods are you hitting? Inventorying those, thinking about the first purpose of them and then started to rethink the purpose for other audiences, and then following that in way that we can track.


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 on the part of many professionals who have traditionally done media relations or publications where content and a variety of other forms.


Chip Griffin: You mentioned measurement which is something near and dear to my heart. I’m a data nerd and love that sort of thing. Then you also touched on the importance of understanding the audience that you’re trying to reach and things like that. With everything that you’re doing, there are so many different potential audiences, whether it’s prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty, neighbors, the business community. How do you manage all of that and try to look at 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 trying to address, and the first thing I learned is don’t try to do them all at once. You will diminish the effectiveness [inaudible 00:14:46]. We focus 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. 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.


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. 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. 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.”


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 at American?” About two-thirds say yes, and about less than 10% say no. Those are not necessarily unusual in and of themselves, but almost a quarter in both surveys say, “I don’t know.”


For me, it’s stunning to think that you might’ve 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 the way that they have the opportunity to know about the university’s value, or could that be influenced in a way that does change the perception over time. 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 focuses of resources, or time, or attention or content as those two audiences first.


Chip Griffin: It seems to me that that underscores the needs for continuous marketing to your audiences. Not just once you’re done being a student we 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: There’s something like 26 definitions of branding in the marketing literature. It depends on who you subscribe to I guess, but one of them I really like talks about branding as a measure of the strength of your relationships with your customers. 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.


Chip Griffin: They are. They’re spending money. That’s the definition of a customer in my book.


Terry Flannery: You want them to be aware over the span of a lifetime. From the first time they hear of you throughout the student lifecycle and into their time as alumns, you want them to become aware, more engaged, more supportive and more loyal. We’re using our brand strategy to cultivate that over time. That’s a really important measure for us.


Chip Griffin: Over the time that I’ve been able to … I guess work with you is not the right term, because I haven’t worked or volunteered, but you know I’ve …


Terry Flannery: Guided, advised.


Chip Griffin: Sure, whatever word we want to apply. You’ve done a number of innovative things, but I think one of the ones that stands out to me is in the whole public policy sphere. There’s been discussion about the value of higher education. That’s something where I think American University has been a real leader in the industry in trying to demonstrate that value 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 something is 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 00:19:48] 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. Then when you do something like that that’s that bold, 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 recognized it. If you look at your own institution, 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’s salaries, they are working with a tiny fraction of our alumni with voluntary surveys. I think 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. That’s a really skewed view of what the economic return on the investment is. 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% of our graduates at the gradate and graduate 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. We said, “Let’s figure out how to deploy that.”


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. Your undergraduate degree was in political science, yes?


Chip Griffin: Yes.


Terry Flannery: And communications, did you do both?


Chip Griffin: I did not, no. Just straight poly sci, or as I like to say, a BA in BS.


Terry Flannery: You can search for the first destination results, employment, admission to graduate school or income for graduates with a BA 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. You don’t just get the really high level data, 91% of our students are employed in grad school or both. You can drill down to a very specific degree program level, and it’s done a very interactive, highly visual way, and it’s getting great feedback.


Chip Griffin: I guess as you look at that, how do you see the importance of national or international public policy issues to the higher ed community, and how important is that to your own particular role? The return on investment of higher education is just one example I think of the issues that confront higher ed right now. 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. I think if you look at all of 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, and I think the military’s still got it. We’ve lost a lot of public trust as have other cherished American institutions. The demand for accountability is probably directly related to the investment people will make in higher education. It’s usually the second 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. The 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.


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. The incoming is coming from all different directions. 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. We are not required like foundations to spend 5% 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 nonprofit 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. We have a board policy of spending 5%, no more than 5% of that income, but so that the institution will last for decades and centuries. 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. Everything that’s happening nationally in the United States in terms of racism, justice, policing, all those conversations are happening off our campus. They come right onto our campus with our students every year. 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 all involved and 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 about a number of different topics. I guess I conclude with, if you could take that crystal ball that I know you have sitting on your desk and take a look to the next five or so years in higher ed communications and marketing.


Terry Flannery: My crystal ball, yes.


Chip Griffin: If our listeners could see, there is a crystal ball-ish kind of thing being all up in front of the camera. If you pulled out that crystal ball, what changes do you see? What trends do you see developing in the next three to five years or so?


Terry Flannery: I think the question of value and return on investment is going to be with us for that entire period of time, and we darn well have better created a better understand 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 country, and I think that that will continue to be something that drives the understanding and the appreciation or not of our sector too.


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


Terry Flannery: All right. I’m happy to join in five years.


Chip Griffin: In the mean time, 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, DC.


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


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About The Author


Jordan Gosselin recently began her career in marketing and communication with CARMA. Her experience includes social and digital work, creative content production, and marketing operations.

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