About CASE
Gary Honnert

This profile from the December 2004 edition of the BriefCASE Newsletter highlights the career of longtime volunteer Gary Honnert

Gary HonnertAs director of public information for the one of the nation's largest community colleges, Gary Honnert manages a comprehensive media and community relations program. Honnert has spent over two decades in higher education and nonprofit public relations at Sinclair, Ohio State University, and the Diocese of Memphis and brings extensive experience as a television news reporter, editor, and photographer to his work in higher education. He has authored various articles for CURRENTS and chapters for CASE Books on community college issues and has been active in CASE as a seminar leader at numerous District V conferences and as a District V board member from 1998 to 2000.

Compared to a four-year institution, how does the role of a public information program differ at a community college? Does a community college reach a more diverse audience?
From an organizational point of view, we're very flat. We have 24,000 students, but we're not a four-year college or university with all the layers of administration. As I recall, when I worked at Ohio State, there were 18 people in the public information office and several layers, including an executive director who reported to a vice president, who reported to the president. Even the physical location was removed from the president; our offices were far away from the center of the hierarchy. Here at Sinclair, I have daily access to the president. We have a small staff. It's myself and one other full-time staff person. We also have two students who work part time.

At Ohio State, I was responsible for television news services and supervised radio features. Now I am more of a generalist, having picked up some print credentials after leaving Ohio State when I worked for the Diocese of Memphis. Our audiences are different and in some ways our message is different too, being tailored to our unique place in the community. At Ohio State, the name was enough to draw students and one even had to bar the door because interest in the school was so high. So there was less of a recruiting angle, more national news.

At Sinclair, we have local and regional audiences. We meet the needs of urban and suburban students throughout a 10-county region. Our name is well known in the community, but ours is an incredibly competitive situation. We have a large student body and a central location downtown in Dayton-but we're not the only game in town. We come up against the University of Dayton, Wright State University, and other smaller regional schools like Edison Community College, Clark State Community College, Miami University, and just 50 miles down the road is Cincinnati and its schools. Unlike a four-year college or university, our students are all ages, and range from high school on up into 70s, 80s, and even 90s-we even offer a wheelchair dancing class. All of our students have one thing in common: They commute to school.

What kinds of programs does Sinclair have in place to build strong community relations? Why is this important for a community college?
One in three families in the area has a member who is currently or has been enrolled at Sinclair. When we ask our students how they heard about us, the primary means is word of mouth-it is leagues ahead of any other type of promotion. This is fueled by our strong presence in most families and the community.

This may sound corny, but we say "community" is the middle and most important part of our name. In other words, Sinclair wouldn't be present, wouldn't exist without our community. Originally, in 1887, the college was begun at a downtown YMCA; we've always had a home in downtown Dayton and the campus is close to the major highways and interchanges. We're responsible to the city, to be an economic tool, a source of jobs and visibility for Dayton. We also are responsible to the county. The college has six board members (appointees) who must be county residents; the Ohio governor appoints three others. So we are by our very structure rooted in and accountable to our community.

We have a unique financial support arrangement, which distinguishes us from many of the other schools in the area. Every 10 years a local tax levy comes up for approval by Montgomery County voters. Currently it provides approximately $21 million of support annually and nearly 70 percent of our students come from Montgomery County. So we must be accountable to not only our students but to our taxpayers as well.

We have many amenities designed for both students and taxpayers. We ensure that Sinclair is of benefit to them by offering numerous events beyond traditional classes, such as career conferences, art shows, concerts, and theater performances. These events are open to everyone in the community and are usually free or charge a nominal fee. We have a Speaker's Bureau with over 90 speakers who speak on over 300 topics. And of course, we return an investment to county residents by offering a tuition break. The last time the Sinclair funding levy came up for a vote, in 1998, nearly 73 percent of voters approved it, so we feel confident that we are reaching our community and having a positive impact.

What has been the toughest "image" problem you have had to overcome at Sinclair or the other institutions where you have worked? How did you overcome the problem?
There is always the lingering misperception about a community college that it is somehow "different," that we are this tech school up the street where kids work on cars. Of course, this isn't entirely true. Yes, we offer auto mechanics, but we are also a comprehensive community college and offer everything from nursing and medical technology to theater, voice, and electrical engineering. We're always working to provide information to clarify common misperceptions about the kind of education and opportunities we offer here.

Soon after I started here in 1988, we conducted a community image survey and people indicated they had a "good feeling" about Sinclair but they didn't know exactly why. They simply had a good impression. It turns out that there are so many reasons: They attended a conference and it was handled professionally, they met a professor who was extremely helpful, they had a daughter who attended the college and was able to make a successful career change, and on and on.

In addition, our students stay local after they leave Sinclair. They give back to the community. Of the 24,000 students we have, only 421 are out of state. Even when our students move on to complete a four-year degree, they still have strong ties to Sinclair. It's a very personal connection; this place was pivotal in their lives. Sinclair was there when they made a big life transition. When I first came to Sinclair, I also was coordinating secretary for the Alumni Association and we heard this over and over from alumni: Sinclair was a turning point in their lives, a place to bridge the gap, and build a future.

My toughest PR challenge at Sinclair has to do with the perception of our urban location. We are an urban institution and sometimes things happen in cities that create a sense of fear. This doesn't mean these things are happening at Sinclair, but it creates a fear of "downtown." So we have to fight this misperception that urban campuses are unsafe. We have one central location downtown where people come together from all walks of life. We emphasize how this is a crossroads community, a place where you will rub elbows with the mom coming off welfare who wants job skills as readily as you will meet the kid who lives in a $500,000 house and wasn't motivated until now to attend college. We readily share our crime statistics by electronically publishing them on a weekly basis.

Tell us about the weekly program, "Education Report," that you produce for your local radio station. What's the focus and who is the audience?
This is not a commercial for the college. I want the listener to get some value out of that half hour we're on the air, whether or not Sinclair is mentioned. It's broadcast from a Clear Channel FM station with a 60-mile radius. I took over this show 17 years ago with the idea of presenting community issues via a public affairs program. Every Sunday morning for 30 minutes, I interview guests from the community. Recently, I spoke with a professor of mental health technology on holiday blues and seasonal depression. I've talked with the assistant conductor of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, who also conducts a youth orchestra, about musical arts education in the schools. I interviewed a judge on the show who holds mock trials for high school students. I have carte blanche to select speakers and topics. About 70 percent of the guests are Sinclair related, but many are not.

Two shows come to mind as being among the most popular, based on feedback we received. One tied in with a workshop we had at the college on domestic violence and the individual I interviewed works with local domestic violence service organizations. This struck a chord in the community. A second show was on career planning, a hot topic in this fragile economy in Ohio. The focus was on resume building, how to dress for a job interview, and learning to translate current skills into a new career.

What has been your most successful PR campaign or media event?
We have just begun a partnership with the Delta Connection Academy, which provides aviation flight training. There are only four other DCA academies in the country, in Florida and Massachusetts. This is a great partnership for our community. This past August when we announced our partnership with the academy, it was big news for our local population, many of whom are currently private pilots and who want to be commercial pilots. In some cases they were ready to move to Florida to get their aviation training.

Dayton has a rich aviation history-this is the home of the Wright brothers among other things. So we announced the partnership with a news conference held in a hangar at Dayton International Airport. The president of Sinclair taxied in on one plane and the president of the Delta Connection Academy taxied in on another plane. It was very visual, a success from a PR point of view. We made it a fun event and tied it to the boost in the aviation industry post 9/11, which crippled the industry. Four local TV stations and the Dayton Daily News and the Associated Press picked it up. Delta also did its own press from the event and stories appeared in various industry publications and newswires. So it was a win-win-win for everyone, the college, the academy, and our students.

What are the most valuable skills you have learned from your years as a volunteer with CASE?
The networking, sharing of ideas I encountered at each CASE event has been invaluable. I have learned so much as a workshop leader, moderator, or just attending a keynote or working session.

The idea I have been most often asked to share at a CASE event has been the management of Sinclair's Speaker's Bureau. It is unique because it's managed entirely online and it's totally interactive. Individuals can "shop" for and read about the various speakers and topics offered and select dates for the speeches. We make our speakers available for community events, such as career days and high school career fairs.

The synergy of the exchange of everyone's "best practices" is amazing. I compare it to a group that Sinclair belongs to called the League for Innovation in the Community College. There are only 20 board member colleges and each of them must agree to share their best practices, so it's a phenomenal learning experience among top-notch community colleges. This has been my experience with CASE, which is a larger version of the league: gifted leaders sharing their knowledge and experience with each other.