Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Community Grief

It's a task no communications professional wants to do: informing their university of the death of a beloved leader. I wish I could say that I didn't have experience working in this situation, but sadly, this week marks the fourth passing of a colleague in six years at my institution. A dean, a chief fundraiser, a library director, and now, the university president who retired two months ago after serving for 21 years in the position.

As hard as it may be, PR offices can play an important role in helping their colleges grieve:
  • Collect and present the images. Cull through your archives and find photographs, news clippings, or videos of the individual through the years. Prepare to make them available to family members and for presentation in an appropriate venue, be it a memorial service, tribute Web site, or alumni magazine article.

  • Go beyond your job description. This is a minor crisis, so be prepared to do anything necessary to help out.

  • Call on your best vendors. You'll probably need your printers to break the rules of time and space to print memorial programs, large mounted photographs, etc., for the upcoming services. Stress the stress of the situation and use only your most reliable vendors.

  • Share the love. Help gather individual memories and stories through a Web site (with comment moderation, just in case) or special notecards available at memorial services or funerals.

  • Consider a silent symbol of appreciation. Following the death of our dean, ribbons and pins were made available across campus to allow students, faculty and staff to wear their appreciation for the late colleague.

  • Support the loved ones. This may seem obvious, but the most important role marketing staff can play is to carefully and efficiently communicate news of the death along with the family's wishes. News travels fast, especially on social media. Getting the word out quickly can preventing the family from getting unwanted calls or messages. Include the "in lieu of flowers" designation in your news release if necessary, and be tactful if the memorial gifts go to your institution (i.e., don't link to your "Make a gift online" page in the online news release).
If your personal grief seems overwhelming, focusing on the work at hand can be therapeutic, if for no other reason than to know that you're doing everything you can for your colleague as a final tribute.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Preaching Beyond the Social Media Choir

I'll admit—I was slow to jump onto the social media bandwagon. I wasn't against the concept, but I didn't feel that I had time to invest in learning it.

Michael Stoner's latest blog post on alumni relations and social media tells the story of an up-and-coming alumni relations leader discovering the professional benefits and promise of social media, a story that mirrors my own (minus the prestigious CAAE research opportunity).

More advancement professionals and college leaders need to hear stories like this, but how many of these leaders follow blogs or see the retweets on Twitter? The most convincing argument for learning the value of social networking tools is follow the Nike idiom to "just do it." But how can PR staff encourage colleagues to take the leap in opening their own accounts, sometimes overcoming smug or even hostile stereotypes against social media?

My plan is to do an intro to social media workshop for faculty and administrators, have them start their own accounts as a part of the training, and allow time for a potentially lengthy Q&A session. Perhaps showing a real-time example of the power of social media (like Brad J. Ward's recent Twitter seminar experiment) might be in order.

What suggestions do you have?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Introducing Social Media to Non-Marketing Colleagues

As higher ed marketing professionals, we are keenly aware of the fact that social media is rapidly transforming the ways we connect with our audiences. While most faculty and administrators have heard of the major social networking tools, there is a significant gap in understanding for those who haven't participated themselves.

To help bridge the gap between the Web 2.0 haves and have-nots, here is a list I created for social media newbies at my institution:
  • Rule #1: Be professional. The ABA recommends the following common-sense rules: Be mature, be ethical, and read it again before posting. Assume that anyone--your boss, the news media, your grandma--can and will read it. When in doubt, don't hit the "publish" button.

  • Learn the channel. The best way to learn how social media sites work is to use them. Join as a member, and if you're nervous, turn on your privacy settings to the highest levels (keeping in mind that you'll lose the benefit of building new connections). As long as you follow Rule #1, it will be hard to get into trouble. Just like any other social environment, the social norms may vary depending on the situation. Here are the major social media tools in use today:

    • LinkedIn: This is the easiest place to get started. Primarily designed to build professional connections, the interactions here are very conservative and tightly controlled.

    • Facebook: With more than 250 million active users, Facebook is the largest social networking site. Privacy settings allow Facebook users to be more personal in their updates, as most only allow "friends" to see most of their content (and these friends must be approved). One caveat—because of the more personal nature of this channel, you may want to think twice before trying to "friend" professional colleagues.

    • Twitter: This popular "microblogging" site allows users to post updates of 140 characters or less. Twitter accounts can be made public or private, and users can "follow" or be followed by other users.

    • Media sites (i.e., YouTube, Flickr, Picasa): These sites focus on sharing videos and photos, which can be tagged and/or commented on (depending on the user's settings).

    • Blogs: Blogs vary widely on their content and levels of interaction and moderation. Some allow for anonymous comments, others allow for moderated comments (approved by the blogger/editor), and others don't allow comments at all.

    • Discussion Forums and Wikis: These sites emphasize user-generated content and discussion around a common topic. They are generally self-moderating, in that participants report inappropriate behavior to the site's management when they see it. The information shared should not be considered authoritative in most circumstances.

  • Consider the source. Discernment is key when following social media sites. Most savvy users can judge the difference between an anonymous opinion and statements made by a known authority. Don't give unattributed comments too much credibility, and if they need to be addressed, do so on the same forum where the comments were made. Try not to let violators of Rule #1 bother you unless they are in your immediate circle of influence (i.e., boss, employee, family member).
  • Remember your e-mail rules. Most of the rules that apply to e-mail communication also apply to other forms of online communication:

    • DON'T WRITE IN ALL CAPS–it is construed as shouting.

    • Don't say anything online that you wouldn't say in person. (See also Rule #1.)

    • Be concise. If a long discussion is warranted, try to do it off-line.

    • Everything you say is permanent. Your messages can be shared or archived indefinitely.

  • Take advantage of the benefits (off company time, of course). Social media sites offer great opportunities for keeping up with friends and family members, learning new things, and building your professional networks. So long as you use good judgment, participating in social media can be a fun and rewarding activity.

Welcome, Higher Ed Communicators!

Are you an in-house communications professional working for a school of law, medicine, business, or other graduate field? Do you find yourself wearing multiple hats in a small shop? Or do you work as a grad-school liaison for a university-wide communications department?

This blog will focus on the unique challenges and opportunities of marketing graduate and professional schools. Any communications-related topic is game: publications, media relations, advertising, photography, Web, social networking, events, crisis communications, strategic planning, etc.

Let me know what topics you're interested in reading about at gradschoolmarketer@gmail.com. Thanks for reading!
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