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Big Marketeers on Campus
What happened to news?

By Bob Beyers

Marcia Fluer, university relations director at the University of Minnesota, plans to "turn my office around so that marketing is really the engine that drives all of the public relations work."  
FORGET NEWS. Try integrated marketing. That's the "buzz" for public relations professionals in higher education.

Using tools honed in corporations and political campaigns. administrators scurry to market their institutions to carefully targeted audiences. Dollars and scholars are the primary benchmarks.

"Guys, whether we like it or not, we're all in sales," Arthur K. Smith told academically robed faculty in his investiture speech as chancellor/president of the University of Houston System last year.

With a few exceptions, how well this approach works with students, parents and taxpayers remains to be fully tested. A few faculty and some journalists covering colleges remain skeptical, and scattered dissent still is heard among campus media managers. But marketing -- the "Big M" on campus -- has enormous momentum.

Riding the wave
"You don't do news. Nobody out there (in college) does," Don Hale, university relations vice president at Carnegie Mellon, told 100 of his professional colleagues at a Washington D.C. conference sponsored by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) last winter.

"If there's a scandal in the health center, that's news. But you ain't doing it," he added, to widespread laughter. "Marketing...has a future. Let's ride the wave."

Hale advised his colleagues to go to their president's office and, if there were no marketing office, lay claim to that title. "Put it in your job description," he said.

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Among his audience, those with titles in media relations, public relations, university relations, and public affairs outnumbered those in news or public information by a margin of more than two to one.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Hale recalled, "the idea of news bureaus resonated with faculty." For administrators, "It was cheap and they loved it."

Lots of people wrote press releases but "nothing happened," he noted. "I don't know a single institution that built its name on publicity."

"Public relations is (now) key to the future of the institution," Hale said. "Marketing can be part of it." PR should permeate the development, admissions, alumni and other "strategic" teams, he argued. In a show of hands, half of those attending said they met weekly or more often with their fund raisers.

"The ideal PR shop is one that looks for the best news stories and uses them for marketing the university" said conference organizer Virgil Renzulli, associate vice president for public affairs at Columbia University.

Indiana University
In April 1996, Indiana University marked the 75th anniversary of its news bureau by closing it down and hiring a marketing professional from the faculty to lead the new Office of Communications and Media.

"What we didn't say publicly was this: The communications staff would largely perform the same functions as always," Indiana Vice President Christopher Simpson disclosed in the January issue of CASE Currents. "We had no intention of abandoning our efforts to promote via the media.

Julie Petersen, director of The University of Michigan News Service, thinks colleges and universities should avoid "slick corporate marketing."  
"What changed is that research and strategic planning would now guide these media efforts...The most profound difference is that we're suddenly suggesting a variety of ways to attract more students or enhance alumni relations, for example. Only a fraction of those methods involve the media."

In 1995, focus groups and individual interviews showed that "few people remembered reading newspaper stories on our steady graduation rates or dramatically lower annual tuition hikes, for example," Simpson said. "Even fewer could recall a positive television news story that dealt with anything but athletics.

"Although favorable stories appeared often, our most important audiences were not receiving the messages. It became clear that by promoting our university solely through the news, we were not reaching our key constituents."

Indiana University President Myles Brand said, "Over one third of the people we surveyed, even though they thought highly of IU, could not name one strength. Not even basketball.

"Support was a mile wide and a half inch deep. The message was that once things go downhill...they're not going to be with us because there's not enough of an anchor in their thinking and attitudes to support us.

"The most effective means of getting our message out was TV, by a wide margin. Another surprise was billboards...They don't have to look like Wendy's or McDonald's. You can do it in a sophisticated way.

"Print media did not do the Job for us. Direct mail worked quite well."

Following a four-month $400,000 advertising campaign last year, the proportion of adults identifying IU with academic quality and job opportunities rose from 32 percent to 44 percent, Simpson said in an interview. More than half the public saw the commercials, and more than half recalled their slogan: "quality education, lifetime opportunities."

Recruitment results
This year a $1.2 million campaign -- coupled with new leadership in admissions, scores of speeches and 90,000 pieces of direct mail -- raised the number of in-state applicants to the Bloomington campus more than eight percent by the beginning of May, when deposits were due.

After dropping about one percent annually from 1994 to 1996, freshman enrollments increased by one percent last fall.

"When we had a news bureau, they never talked on a regular basis with admissions," Simpson claimed. "Now virtually everything we do is linked to admissions. That's uncommon at major universities."

Self-congratulatory signs line campus streets as part of Indiana University's marketing campaign.  
A "small minority" of faculty opposed the shift toward marketing, but only one wrote a long, impassioned critique. "Five, ten, 15 years ago there was a lot more cynicism. Now a lot of faculty do a better job of telling our story," Simpson said. "They see and feel the budget cuts; they hear the demands for accountability."

The new marketing emphasis "has not been easy at all" for former news bureau writers, Simpson said. News releases have been cut 40 percent. Four or five staff members still handle media relations. Simpson's marketing and public relations staff totals about 40.

Barb Alpert, higher education reporter at The Indianapolis Star and News, sees relatively little change. "We get gobs and gobs of releases…They supply a lot of good stories and tips to generate our own pieces," she said.

Prior to Indiana's "Big M" switch, Alpert did a major feature on paid marketing by private and public universities in Indiana. Some readers were surprised by the dollars involved, but otherwise there wasn't much reaction.

Ivy Tech State College, a two-year technical institution with 35 campuses, was "out front early with TV and radio, and enrollment is really increasing," she said. "There's a lot of competition for students among public colleges."

In recent months, IU has had "terrific success" with a revamped Web site, according to Simpson. Since it substituted a button on "how to apply" for "a message from the president" on its home page last November, an average of 350 prospective students a week have answered a 22-item questionnaire while requesting more information. The result is "a gold mine" for recruitment, Simpson said.

Half a dozen other universities have sent teams to see how Indiana does it. Another dozen have requested consultations.

Responding to Indiana's example in CASE Currents, Larry Arbeiter, director of communications for the University of Chicago, said, "We can all incorporate marketing ideas without an expensive, high-profile revolution.

"For most of us, the best course is not to trade our news bureaus for marketing offices but to add some marketing methods to our already established toolbox of good procedures."

In an interview, Arbeiter added, "If you take marketing seriously, you need to think about your audiences. The last thing reporters want to get is calls from marketing. It pushes the bullshit meter up."

Universities that plunge "too eagerly into marketing can spend long-term capital" of credibility with the news media, Arbeiter said. "This can come back and haunt them."

That happened at the University of Illinois' Chicago campus. Ed Tate, former interim public affairs director for the campus, agreed with Arbeiter, and said that "marketing is being misapplied in higher education."

"We weathered a marketing storm" for 18 months, he said. UIC took "a blind rush into marketing without knowing what it meant. The director of marketing had no budget for advertising."

When top administrators realized that the headlong rush did not pan out, public affairs regained the lead position. "News is still the most cost effective form of communication," Tate said. "Advertising and promotion are expensive."

UIC achieved double-digit increases in student applicants through direct mail recruitment and straight news. Highly regarded by Chicago Tribune staffers, Tate recently moved to Educational Testing Service, where he is working with marketing experts.

John Camper, former UIC communications director, now serves as deputy press secretary for Mayor Richard Daley. "Marketing became a buzz word" for UIC fund raisers, but no one could define its goals, he said in an interview.

Administrators were "enamored of private business and resented news reporters, because they couldn't control their message," Camper added.

"People are enamored of education. It's like God. It's our answer to everything," Camper said. "If higher education leaders say 'we're a business; we're going to market like a business,' down the line people will think of you as a business, and education will lose the comparative advantage" it now enjoys with the public, he warned.

Julie Peterson, director of the University of Michigan News Service, agreed. "We're still seen as the guys in the white hats," she said. Peterson is a journalism major with an MBA in marketing.

"University media relations issues are different from corporations," Peterson said. "We have an obligation to share information. Our public responsibility goes beyond our self-interest. If we are seen as biased or self-serving, we risk losing credibility. We can't transform ourselves into slick corporate marketing. We should jealously guard those differences."

Peterson's office produces a quarterly newspaper, Michigan Today, which has a circulation of more than 300,000. "Its readership is pretty high. It's one of the few things alumni receive that doesn't ask for money," she said.

Linda Grace-Kobas, Cornell University News Service director, said "most universities are giving more attention to marketing. In our news service -- knock on wood -- the focus (still) is on undergraduates and research. We're not into a marketing plan for news…We absolutely have to let the public know in a straightforward way."

But others are less concerned about maintaining a line between news and marketing. "l fully intend to turn my office around so that marketing is really the engine that drives all of the public relations work," Marcia Fluer, university relations director at the University of Minnesota, told the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges last fall. "Otherwise, you're flying by the seat of your pants."

Marketing "has to be research based," she added. Minnesota's market studies four years ago showed that more than 80 percent of citizens considered teaching to be the top priority in higher education.

"People will put up with fancy faculty research. They will listen and nod away when they hear every dollar in state support generates two dollars in grants. But you won't get an extra nickel…unless you meet the core expectations about teaching and reasonable access for students," Fluer said in an interview.

University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof repeated that core message in 45 cities across the state for eight months. Helped by the strong economy, Minnesota got the biggest capital bond issue -- $209 million -- in its history, with an additional $36 million added to its budget base by the legislature.

While some Minnesota faculty still view marketing as evil, others had to be turned away from an informal campus communications forum on marketing this spring.

Last year alone, 90 Minnesota faculty took media training to become experts in fielding news inquires, Fluer said. "Most of them will accept the fact that if they're going to do media, they probably need some training to do it better, and that's a good thing. But how do you teach your faculty that marketing is beneficial to them, because the 'M' word still sends some of them flying out the door?"

Even though most faculty are researchers, getting administrators and professors to accept -- and act on -- the results of market research is challenging. "Marketing has to change the product or it's not going to work for us," Fluer said.

University of Houston
Wendy Adair, top university relations officer for the University of Houston system, said her privately funded marketing budgets have risen to $250,000 from $50,000 in the last two years.

"The only criticism we get is that we're not doing more," she said in an interview. The faculty are aware not only of competition from other colleges but from distance learning, corporate training and other non-traditional sources.

"Twenty years ago, you couldn't use the term marketing unless you were talking about an academic department," she said. "Marketing was something good universities shouldn't have to do. It was bad form."

While presidents and provosts might have worn masks to a meeting on marketing ten years ago, Adair said that they now flock to talks on "using the 'M' word; telling the university story."

Building a common, university-wide marketing direction "is not rocket science," Adair added. "It's been done by corporations for years. Public support has come only recently."

But whether it should be done by colleges and universities is another question.

Bob Beyers was director of the Stanford University News Service from 1961 to 1990.

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