Julie Peterson’s Communications Planning Advice #rMche

Sometimes the best laid plans go awry.

For the past year, I’ve been interviewing top communicators in higher education as part of “Leadership Lessons“, a monthly live webcast series in partnership with PRSA Counselors to Higher Education. It’s been great fun and I’ve met fantastic professionals from colleges large and small, and gotten to talk with them about topics from crisis communications to branding to social media and more.

Julie Peterson, University of ChicagoSo it’s perhaps ironic that despite all the planning I do ahead of time to prepare these webcast, my interview with University of Chicago’s Julie Peterson, on the topic of communications planning, went terribly awry. Just as the interview was starting, the program that streams the audio portion of the interview crashed. I didn’t realize it until a few minutes in, and then I was unable to get things going again on the fly.

I had an incredible interview with Julie, but no one was able to hear it!

The only consolation to Leadership Lessons viewers is that I was able to take down a few notes. At the end of the interview, Julie shared her three bits of advice for higher ed communications professionals who are looking for ways to make more structured planning a part of their communications strategies. Here’s what she shared:

1. Really understand what the goals are for the client or entity that you work with.

Whether it’s the president of the university, a department head, or a special program or institute on campus, you can’t put together an effective communications plan without first understanding with they are trying to achieve. Make sure that the communications program you recommend can get them there. If you do that consistently, you won’t be an afterthought. Instead, you’ll be a strategic partner and invited into the process at early stages, when you can really create communications plans that make a difference.

2. Don’t be afraid to offer strong advice.

YOU are the communications expert. So often, people approach communications staff with a pre-baked solution (even though it may not be the right one). You need to shape the plan by knowing when to lead strategy in another direction, in a constructive way. Julie noted that early on in her career, she learned to say “Instead of…. why don’t we….” as a way to reframe conversations.

3. Try stuff!

Don’t be afraid to test things out. Learn from your experience. If something works, use it as a baseline for the next communications plan and improve on it. Get input by being open to new suggestions and new methods. Propose creative solutions.

University of Chicago Booth Logo

When the University of Chicago’s school of business announced its record $300 million gift, Julie and her team put together a comprehensive plan for how to announce it. They were able to provide strategic counsel to the business school and come up with some creative ideas that helped navigate key opportunities surrounding the announcement. Because the gift announcement coincided with the 2008 presidential election and they knew they’d be unable to grab media attention during election week, Julie’s team pre-pitched the Wall Street Journal under embargo. They created a heavy focus on events to drive community and generate on-campus excitement surrounding the gift — the communications plan called for a large event/reception, and they created flyers and emails to business school students, alumni and faculty inviting them to a special event featuring a major announcement that would be transformational to the school. Their communication plan was designed to create a lot of excitement and buzz and foster the sense of community around the gift, the branding/naming of the school, and the implications of the gift on the future of the college.

Julie shared that communications plans aren’t just about big, overarching, institutional plans that cover a long time period. Even smaller projects can and should have communications plans — mini-plans, she called them. Whether your institution is making a big gift announcement, launching a new degree program, or taking a stance on a controversial issue, you should have a communications plan in place. That means understanding the goals, defining the key audiences and stakeholders and determining or outlining specific communications tactics and timelines. When a plan is in place, it’s much easier to keep things on track. Internal colleagues and stakeholders know what’s expected and through vetting and agreeing on a plan, are establishing their early buy-in.

PRSA CHE = Expertise

These were just a few pearls of wisdom Julie shared during her interview. Her level of expertise and openness is characteristic of what you’ll find across most members of the PRSA Counselors to Higher Education section: strategic thinkers who are among the best in their profession, and who are always willing to share their experiences with others. If you’re not currently a member of PRSA CHE, I encourage you to get involved and attend the Senior Summit every April in Washington, DC.

And I do hope you’ll join me for next month’s Leadership Lessons episode — which I intend to make issue-free!

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