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Communications Is from Mars, Admissions Is from Venus
Communications Is from Mars, Admissions Is from Venus

Though the two divisions work toward the same end goal, they can seem solar systems apart

By Maura King Scully


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Welcome to the Solar System Counseling Center. Today, we're talking with Venus, from admissions at Every University, and Mars, from EU's marketing and communications department. The two are having trouble seeing eye to eye. Let's hear their stories.

Venus says: In admissions, we're doing the really important work. This institution is tuition-dependent, and we're responsible for filling the seats, bringing in the dollars, and making this place run. The marketing and communications folks are just the font and logo police; they contemplate which photos to put on the Web site. We in admissions should be their absolute top priority, and they should give us exactly what we want because we know the institution's audience best.

Mars says: We're the only ones looking out for the overall institutional brand. And the brand is much more than the visual identity—it's holistic, encompassing every interaction between this school and its various publics: current and prospective students, alumni and donors, government and community. Admissions people are so focused on the short term—bringing in next year's class—that they sometimes lose sight of long-term objectives, like promoting and protecting the brand. Not to mention that in their quest to attract 17-year-olds, they want to do some ... um ... unorthodox things with publications. I know they know their audience, but we know our brand.

Can this relationship be saved?

The answer, of course, is yes. Both Mars and Venus are located in the same solar system—right next to each other, as a matter of fact. They're both vital arms of the same institution and therefore have a vested interest in that institution doing well. But as the fictitious conversation above illustrates, the two units often have very different needs, priorities, and ways of conducting business.

We're only human

At its root, the Mars/Venus-marcomm/admissions division is not surprising. By nature, we humans are binary beings; left brain versus right brain, Yankees versus Red Sox, red states versus blue states.

"It may be an outrageous simplification to say one is from Mars and the other from Venus," says Jessica McWade, senior vice president for strategy, communication, and development at Maguire Associates, a higher education consulting firm, "but the reality is that admissions and marketing don't work as well together as they need to. And when they do work well together, it's the exception rather than the rule."

McWade isn't the only consultant who's noticed this divide. "We've worked with admissions offices to do a social media audit and never seen or met with the university marketing communications people," says Brad Ward of BlueFuego, a marketing company that specializes in social Web tools for educational institutions. "We've also worked with marketing communications offices that have said, ‘We don't trust admissions to put out a relevant message.' Sometimes it's just personalities or a ‘We don't work with marketing communications' culture that's longstanding."

In the corporate world, such cultural clashes find a parallel in "the classic tension between sales and marketing," says Deborah Maue, former marketer of packaged consumer goods and now assistant vice president for marketing strategy at DePaul University in Chicago. "Both think they know best what the customer wants. There's always tension because sales is responsible for getting the sale, which is a short-term goal," Maue explains. "Marketing has long-term expectations. They're managing the brand for the long haul."

For example, sales may advocate for a price cut that would help increase sales, while marketing would argue against that short-term fix because it works against long-term positioning as a premium brand.

Tower of Babel

Technology has only exacerbated the problem. Just as in the early '90s, when anyone with desktop publishing software could fancy him or herself a designer, today's omnipresent social media tools can make anyone a marketer, or at least feel like one.

"Admissions doesn't necessarily need to [talk] to university marketing," Ward explains. "They know their audience, which is younger. Communicating with that audience through social media is second nature. Sure, admissions might have to go to marketing if they need a printed piece or a brochure, but there are all these free tools that have cropped up out there on the Web. Oftentimes, it's easier for admissions to take care of those things themselves."

But such Lone Ranger independence can work at institutional cross-purposes. Ward recalls one institution "where admissions created a Facebook fan page for admitted students, and then each division went and created a separate fan page for its admitted students—basically recreating the wheel. From the outside, it looks like the institution isn't working together."

And such an appearance is a shame, notes Jim Miller, senior vice president of enrollment management and career services at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology, because "if marketing and admissions are too far apart, the university can't realize its full potential. It won't leverage what it has as quickly or as well."

Road map to success

In 2004, Miller chaired a major rebranding effort at RIT that helped solidify the core brand, which was specialized, career-focused, and technological. He also wanted RIT to become a more national and international name. "All communication starting from the same premise is good," says Miller. "It helps the university focus and prioritize to be consistent with its strategic plan."

After developing a marketing communications strategy for the university as a whole, Miller's team then reached out to 30 operational units at RIT—colleges, schools, and centers—to help them develop brand-specific communications plans for their particular needs. "Strong brands are built from the inside out," explains Miller. "You make a mistake if you leave everything at the university level."

Miller also credits William W. Destler, RIT's president, for the branding initiative's success. "At the time, he was new, and his independent assessment in looking in at us was consistent with what we'd found in our own brand study. It was an incredible opportunity to connect the university's left brain [research-focused academics] and the right brain [creative marketing and admissions efforts]."

Miller's story of RIT's rebranding contains the three elements essential for bringing Mars and Venus, communications and admissions, into the same orbit—leadership, structure, and talent.

First, leadership. "It definitely comes from the top down," observes Amanda Chaborek, director of communications and community relations at Cleary University in Michigan. Before coming to Cleary, Chaborek worked at a number of educational institutions "where it's been brand management versus student recruitment. It can be a nightmare, with push and pull all the time and no forward motion. So you end up with an admissions plan, a development plan, and a communications plan, but no one is looking to see that they all fit together."

McWade points out that as binary humans, we're all employees of a "camp"—a particular office—before the institution. "The magic of gifted leadership is that it sees the benefits of breaking down those barriers—that's the only way to achieve more than the sum of its parts. So leadership at the highest level has to articulate an explicit institutional vision, has to model behavior of collaboration, expect it, be seen doing it, and reward it."

The right stuff

A strong leader with a strategic vision is a great start. But to drive collaboration, you also need a good organizational structure. That's why when John McCarthy came to the U.K.'s Liverpool Hope University in 2005, he combined marketing, recruitment, and external relations into one team.

"Previously, marketing had made brochures and looked after the Web site, and admissions had been part of registry," he explains. Now as director of marketing, recruitment, and external relations, he reports a "cultural change within the team. Their jobs are enriched because of the new structure. The marketing side better understands the admissions process and how they can support that process, and the admissions team has a better understanding of marketing. I encourage each part of the team to think, How might what they're doing help someone else on the team?"

So when the winner of the Turner Prize, a prominent art competition in the U.K., came to deliver a lecture on campus, "we were able to promote that to applicants for the fine arts," he explains. "We did something similar when a member of Parliament came to campus with political science applicants."

On the opposite end, Peter Thomas, director of marketing, communications, and recruitment at the U.K.'s Buckinghamshire New University, just undid such a combined structure—one he created when he arrived five years ago. "Admissions and recruiting is now in a position of strength," says Thomas. "And now we need to drive the brand: image, reputation, and profile. So we felt it was best to become a strategic business unit. Admissions and recruitment are now in the directorate of students services, which is an operational unit."

Though the two are in separate divisions, Thomas sees their fates as intertwined. "If the new structure works well, it should help everyone. If we get the branding right, then it's going to help recruitment.

Such is the cyclical nature of organizational structure. "We all inherit structures, and they're constantly changing," says McWade. "There's not one absolute right answer. I would say that structure is critical, but it's not as important as talent."

Organizational idol

This brings us to the third essential element for fruitful Mars-Venus collaboration: human resources. "You can have all the presidential encouragement and the best possible structure, but if you don't have the right people in the job, progress will be hindered," says McWade.

Kim Manning, vice president for university relations at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, oversees the office responsible for producing admissions publications, but not the admissions department itself. The arrangement works just fine. "For some reason, dating back to the '80s, we had the budget for all of admissions' print materials," she recalls. "One day, the head of admissions came to me and said, ‘Why do you have to have my budget?' and I said, ‘Why do I have to have your budget?' So it's now been transferred back to admissions. But it hasn't affected the collaboration at all. That's the level of trust."

It's an esprit de corps Manning fosters with admissions and other key players. "Every quarter, the heads of public affairs, alumni, development, admissions, and university relations get together for lunch. It's produced collaborative efforts on a number of levels," she says. For example, admissions was investigating ways to be more responsive to inquiring prospective students and parents. They also wanted to find more ways to involve current students with prospective students.

"We now have 70 paid, trained student colleagues who answer the main line at Rutgers, who field between 500 and 1,500 calls per day," Manning explains. "The advantage is that we can put our best product—students—in a front-facing role. Best of all, when callers have admissions questions that students can't answer, they can connect them with the appropriate admissions counselor."

That's not to suggest that Rutgers is a Mars-Venus nirvana. "We have a tradition here of working together, but it's not always easy, and we don't always make everybody happy," Manning says. Take the university's budget, which is state-supported. When the university faces declining state appropriations, a common scenario in recent years, Manning needs to communicate the negative impact of those budget cuts. Of course, those communications go out precisely when students are deciding whether or not to attend Rutgers. "We try to balance, but it doesn't always work. Sometimes, things end up in the paper that admissions wishes wasn't there," Manning says.

But the "benefits of working together outweigh difficulties," Manning concludes. "Admissions deals with one of the largest, most important constituent groups. It's very important that we understand that audience and that the brand is infused in all that we do."

That understanding, of course, involves both admissions and communications stepping out of their org-chart boxes and learning the craft of the other. And that's often not supported institutionally.

"Today's universities train people to be micro specialists, to have vertical expertise," says McWade. "But the market is horizontal, and the world we serve is horizontal." McWade says that most institutions don't value collaboration as much as they should. "The benefit of collaboration is that we can train people to think in interdisciplinary terms. The right talent instantly understands the benefits of collaboration," she says. "The danger with relying on talent alone, however, is that when that talent leaves, the wrong person in the wrong job can undo all of that collaboration."

Meeting expectations

If leadership, structure, and talent are the three legs of the stool, communication is the glue that holds them all together, or in this case, the gravitational force that makes the planets spin round.

"It doesn't matter where marketing and admissions sit so long as the two units communicate closely," says Patricia Murchie, director of marketing, admissions, recruitment, and communications at the University of Bedfordshire in the U.K. "If you have good news, you want it to reach all of your audiences. You want to work together to plan and streamline information so you avoid duplicating information or bombarding applicants. By working together, you get the best of both worlds. You can assure that the message is consistent and that one vehicle is reinforcing another."

Murchie says that her diverse division works well together, but not just because they are all on the same team. "It's because we communicate well and agree on what we're trying to achieve overall," she says.

What does communicating well look like? "It depends," says Murchie. "It could be face-to-face meetings, regular e-mails—one size doesn't fit all."

McWade argues that "consistent, well-run meetings help. They should be frequent, but fairly brief, with clear action items and accountability. You can almost guarantee great collaborative success if you know how to run an effective meeting. However, effective meetings are rare."

Chaborek agrees that meetings have a bad reputation. "But our monthly external relations committee meeting is actually very helpful. It involves alumni, admissions, development, communications, and the president. None of us ever miss them if we can help it. We can deal with a lot of topics because we're sitting across the table from one another. We'll say, ‘Let's follow up on this topic and do it by next Friday.' Following up on issues helps everyone stay on track."

Leadership, accountability, and communication make for a happy work environment. "I love coming to work every day because it's so transparent," Chaborek says. "We're all working for one institution. The attitude here is that everyone is an admissions rep and a manager of the brand."

That's just the kind of "all for one" attitude that creates interplanetary, and interdisciplinary, harmony.

In Short

The Original Solar System. The original inhabitants of Mars and Venus were men and women from John Gray's 1992 book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. In it, Gray wrote about differences in how men and women communicate in a relationship. Since publication, the book has been seen being read in movies and TV shows such as Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and The Simpsons and was even made into a Broadway musical in 1997. Gray has written an entire Mars/Venus series, including one about relationships in the office titled (what else?) Mars and Venus in the Workplace.

Rally Around Rankings. Though admissions and marketing generally work toward their own department's goals, the two can find common ground when it comes to institutional rankings. Because potential students (admissions' turf) use rankings such as those from U.S. News & World Report and the QS World University Rankings, which are based on reputation (marketing's turf), the two sides must work together. And the rankings obsession isn't going anywhere. In fact, a new report says that rankings affect institutional policy. To read more, download The Role and Relevance of Rankings in Higher Education Policymaking at www.ihep.org.

Org Mart. According to the article above, structure can greatly affect how different teams and departments within an institution communicate. If you think shuffling your structural deck could help, take a look at organizational chart samples from other institutions available on the CASE Web site. Members will find charts for an entire advancement team or individual units such as communications and marketing. Available from both public and private institutions, these sample charts can offer inspiration when looking to make a change.

Leader of the Pack. Every solar system needs a sun to keep all the planets aligned, but with shifting priorities and strategic goals, sometimes leaders lose focus. To help, Management-Issues.com has compiled a list of articles from their experts. One article, "Seven Principles of Leadership," says that an institution should have a clear leadership development plan in place, as well as a mentoring program for managers aspiring to be the institution's future leaders. Find this article and others at www.management-issues.com. Click on "hot topics," and look for "leadership."

About the Author Maura King Scully Maura King Scully

Maura King Scully is a freelance writer and a former staff member of the Boston College Alumni Association.

 

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