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The Day We Closed the News Bureau

How Indiana University survived the switch from promotions-oriented PR to integrated marketing

By Christopher Simpson


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In April 1996, as we at Indiana University marked the 75th anniversary of our acclaimed news bureau, we abruptly closed it.

In its place we opened the Office of Communications and Marketing, a first step in moving IU from its traditional promotional mode to an integrated marketing approach.

That dramatic gesture, one that understandably startled many members of our academic community, raised interest among public relations officials in higher education nationwide.

Some university colleagues feared our move would trigger a trend that pushed news directors to the ranks of the unemployed. Others were curious and wanted to learn more.

Today, nearly two years after closing the news bureau, IU has incorporated integrated marketing into almost every part of our eight campuses' public relations efforts. By using qualitative and quantitative research as the foundation for our unified efforts, we have been able to document how much more effective integrated marketing can be.

But it wasn't easy. For every success there was a pitfall. From skeptical faculty to concerned staff, people across campus found that making the transition was not without its challenges. The keys to our success were a supportive president, a willing faculty and staff, and a continuous effort to communicate our goals, objectives, and strategies.

Marketing vs. promotion

Our initial hurdle was to communicate to everyone from the president to the news bureau staff the difference between promotion and marketing. We needed to demonstrate how the latter would help improve our efforts to reach our key constituents.

Promotion, by our definition, is sending both internal and external constituents the information you want them to have. Although it's possible to distribute this information in a variety of ways, many institutions use only one main outlet—the media—which they contact through a news bureau. IU was no exception.

After much research, however, we found a shortcoming. If your primary means of promotion is via the news bureau and the media, you're assuming everyone reads the newspaper, watches TV news, or listens to the radio. Reams of recent data show this is untrue: According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, viewership of network TV nightly news broadcasts dropped from 60 percent in 1993 to 42 percent in 1997. In 1970, 70 percent of the adult population said they were regular newspaper readers; by 1996 that figure had dropped to 59 percent. And an independent polling firm, Forrester Research, predicts newspapers will lose 14 percent of their current readers to the Internet by 2001.

A more effective means of reaching key constituents and enhancing your image, then, is integrated marketing. We define it as these six steps:

  1. Carefully target your audience.
  2. Assess its wants and needs.
  3. Use this information to shape a message that your audience will receive well.
  4. Find the most creative and effective ways to deliver your message.
  5. Deliver that message.
  6. Perhaps most important, check to ensure you are effectively changing attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs—for the better.

At IU, the bottom line is this: Promotion is informing, a passive way to shape your image. Marketing takes an active approach, from setting goals to conducting research to checking to see if you have indeed enhanced your image.

Promotion, in other words, is a means through which you hope to improve your image. Marketing guarantees you can do so.

The beginning of the end

In spring 1995, IU President Myles Brand pointedly asked if the university's image matched reality. Most Hoosiers knew that our schools of business and music are among the best in the nation, he noted. But how many of our key constituents realized that we also have 68 other programs that rank in the nation's top 20 in their fields? Then he echoed the concerns we've all heard before: Do our audiences question how many courses our faculty teach, whether graduates get the jobs they want, and if the university is a good steward of public resources? Our public affairs and government relations staff had some opinions, but none of us could answer the president's questions with any real authority.

So that summer we quietly fanned out around the state, meeting with more than 100 key legislators, business leaders, and alumni. In small groups and in one-on-one conversations we asked, "What is the image of IU in Indiana?"

We found that the image, by and large, was very good. But perceptions were often inaccurate. When asked what IU's instate tuition is, for example, many responded with figures 30 to 50 percent higher than the actual cost of $3,300 a year at our Bloomington campus. Likewise, we learned that many of the positive perceptions were shaped historically, not by our own efforts to educate people on IU's successes.

And most alarming, we found that our news bureau's efforts to change perceptions were not working as well as we had imagined. Few people remembered reading newspaper stories on our steady graduation rates or dramatically lower annual tuition hikes, for example. 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 media, we were not reaching our key constituents.

When we huddled with President Brand to share our findings, we were shocked to hear that he, too, had heard identical stories in his many conversations with constituents. This one discussion was enough for us to realize that our PR and marketing efforts needed improvement.

After strategizing with faculty, staff, and students that fall, we began planning to move aggressively into integrated marketing. Brand fully supported the effort, since he had success with a similar program he started several years earlier at the University of Oregon. We quickly set four goals:

  1. Close the news bureau and re-open as the Office of Communications and Marketing—a key move to focus on our new emphasis.
  2. Scour the university for the best marketing expertise among faculty and staff to help us design our program.
  3. Completely revamp the way we handle public and media relations at the Bloomington campus.
  4. Design and implement marketing campaigns for all other campuses.
Closing the news bureau's doors

We knew this was a big undertaking. Our first step was to consolidate several staff vacancies so we could hire a director for the new office—not an editor, designer, or writer, but someone with extensive experience in developing and implementing marketing efforts. Since our ranks were already filled with talented journalists, we wanted to find an experienced marketing pro who valued research, was driven by strategic planning, and demanded measurable results. Before launching a national search, we turned to our own school of journalism and found an award-winning faculty member and former PR executive, Sandra Conn, who fit the bill.

Next we decided that the Office of Communications and Marketing would have two functions. The marketing arm, composed of two staffers from the news bureau and one from the vice president's office, would conduct research and develop strategic marketing plans to determine how to best tell our success stories. The communications section, made up of the remaining staffers from the former news bureau, would be the first entity to help implement those strategic plans.

What we didn't say publicly was this: The communications staff would largely perform the same functions as always. We had no intention of abandoning our efforts to promote via the media. In fact, our goals specified that while we wouldn't necessarily do more with the media, we would concentrate on making our media relations more effective. What changed is that research and strategic planning would now guide these media efforts.

Through one-on-one and small group discussions with news bureau staffers, we tried to reassure them that 75 percent of their job duties would not change, and in the other 25 percent they would be learning new ways to reach key audiences. Then we announced the closure and moved the staff to a new location on campus.

"We felt that simply changing our name was not enough to make a dramatic transition internally," says DeAnna Hines, former news bureau director and now executive director of communications. "It sounds cosmetic, but we found the move solidified the feeling that 'it's a new day' and times were changing."

The next challenge was to determine how to rearrange our writers' daily tasks to find time to begin true marketing. The answers came in the next 12 months as Hines and her staff visited with key media statewide. What she found was no surprise: Most reporters and editors wanted fewer feature stories and press releases and more short, succinct tip sheets. Today, we have slashed the number of feature stories we produce and cut the number of press releases we send by 40 percent.

Putting marketing to work

As soon as we decided to make the change, Sandra Conn and I visited individually with the chancellor, key senior staff, and, most important, every academic dean.

In the past we had asked deans, "What interesting stories can we find within your school?" Under the new marketing concept, we instead asked, "What are your external goals for the next 12 to 24 months?" After much discussion, most said they wanted to find more or better students, enhance their school's image, or form stronger ties with alumni.

Another change was that previously the news bureau director had assigned one person to promote each school through the media. Now our new communications and marketing office staffers lead individual marketing teams to develop multiple strategies for helping the school meet its external goals. Each team draws on existing faculty and staff expertise. The most profound difference is that we're suddenly suggesting a variety of ways to attract more students or enhance alumni relations, for example—and only a fraction of those methods involve the media. In short, we dramatically expanded our portfolio and the range of services we offer.

Here's an example of how this works.

Our first major "new" marketing client was the College of Arts and Sciences, the largest college at our main campus in Bloomington. As with many liberal arts schools, COAS had experienced steady enrollment declines in recent years. With attracting more students as a key goal, we set up our first 16-member marketing team. Conn and I were the leaders, and we included one representative each from the admissions, alumni, and publications offices; a Web page designer, and, of course, the beat writer still assigned to the college from the old news bureau structure. The COAS dean also joined the team and brought along his chief recruiter and fund raiser, several key department chairs, and one student leader.

As we explained at the marketing team's first meeting, our goal was to use the expertise around the table to develop a simple strategic marketing plan that showed the dean how we could increase the school's enrollment.

"The most difficult part was educating the new team on the importance of research and developing measurable tactics," Conn says. "Because if we can't measure the effectiveness of each tactic—be it a news release, recruiting trip, or alumni gathering—we should not be doing it."

So, at the team's recommendation, within months we had conducted a series of focus groups with current and prospective students. For one of these studies, staff members trained in qualitative research methods worked with our publications specialist on three focus groups with incoming freshmen to determine why students consider liberal arts majors. We found that many students were unsure of what types of jobs the major could lead to. So we created three new publications to promote career opportunities in different liberal arts majors and sent them to prospective students whom we hadn't marketed to before. We then measured their responses as well as the new publications' yield (expressed interest compared to matriculation) to determine how well they worked in relation to our other materials.

In a related effort, we talked with several groups of freshmen about why they chose the college, what their expectations were, and if they were satisfied. One finding jumped out at us: The students craved one-on-one communication. They admonished us for not providing enough opportunities for prospects to talk to faculty. We took their advice and sent the dean and some key faculty members out on the recruiting trail.

What results have we seen so far? COAS enrollment in fall 1997 was up more than 10 percent over 1996—five times higher than the rest of the campus. While a leap of this magnitude can't be attributed solely to our marketing efforts, they clearly contributed significantly.

You may wonder what role media relations and the beat writer played in this effort. In the past, writers were responsible for finding interesting faculty research and student successes to promote to the major media. Today, the marketing team recommends specific programs for the writers to highlight and the geographic locations for them to target. If, for example, the admissions office believes we can attract students from states A, B, and C, our beat writers focus on pitching to various media outlets in those states rather than just targeting the top 50 newspapers nationwide. From there, the writer's job continues much as it had before.

Today IU has more than a dozen such marketing teams underway. Each team's work begins with some form of qualitative and quantitative research, most conducted at no fee by our office. The academic dean is always a team member, as are the most creative faculty and staff and the school's beat writer from the old news bureau. The team's efforts are guided by a simple strategic plan that includes specific goals and measurable tactics.

Selling the new plan

Although we had support from the upper levels of our administration, including the president, the toughest challenge in our "reinvention" was persuading those whose jobs were affected.

"Change is not easy for everyone, and sometimes we tried to move too fast," reflects Heather Shupp, assistant director of marketing publications. "I would tell anyone who's going through this process that you cannot overestimate how difficult these kinds of transitions are." She says the key to a smooth transition is to hold regular one-on-one and small-group staff meetings that have two objectives: First, to have the entire staff discuss, debate, and finally agree upon specific short- and long-term goals, and second, to air any problems that arise and then solve them.

"You cannot slow imminent change," Shupp says, "but you must strive for continuous communication."

Here are five transition-smoothers that we recommend highly:

  1. Find every available means to educate faculty and staff on the benefits of marketing. In years past we simply referred to marketing as "the M word." That too often conjures up images of Madison Avenue, smoke-and-mirrors ad campaigns, or efforts that simply promote the president. Communicate widely, but understand it is a hard sell in some quarters.

    We arranged one-on-one conversations with the president, senior staff members, and deans. Then we did the same with alumni and athletics office staffers, the members of the IU Foundation, faculty leaders, and all the media and PR pros from each school. In every conversation, we discussed how marketing techniques would help us tell everyone's success stories.

    To convert a few skeptics, we worked diligently to have several early successes to back up our promises. And we made sure to report those good results in our campus newsletter.
  2. Be skeptical of outside consultants. We used an outside firm to assist us in the creative development and production of television advertisements, but we chose the agency carefully after reviewing more than a dozen proposals. What we found was that many outside agencies did not understand the field of education. The litmus test: Check a firm's client list to ensure it has education experience.

    We were also lucky to have the resources of the university-run Public Opinion Laboratory, to which we turned to conduct some qualitative research. Not only did this cost less than outside vendors, but the staff used students for some of the work, which was a great educational tool.
  3. Don't try to make marketing specialists out of every staff member. Through trial and error we learned to treasure our top writers, editors, and designers not for what they could become in a marketing scenario, but for the value they could bring with the professional skills and institutional knowledge they already had.

    In several instances, we asked staff members to work on specific new projects and evaluated their receptivity to change. Some flourished under the new concepts. Others preferred to continue working as traditional journalists. For the most part, we've been able to assign our staffers to roles that take best advantage of each person's work style.
  4. Measure every new effort. While we had our skeptics at IU, few challenged the results when our quantitative data—gathered and analyzed by our Public Opinion Lab&mdash/owed our effectiveness. Data, most faculty agreed, don't lie.

    Some of this quantitative research also confirmed President Brand's original fears—that too few Hoosiers knew the depth and breadth of our programs, and fewer still understood the value of an IU degree. These data led us to create a universitywide marketing campaign with the simple slogan, "Quality Education. Lifetime Opportunities."

    Using the integrated marketing principle, we sent our messages to our key audiences' favorite media venues—radio, television, print and billboard advertisements, and direct mail—to illustrate what IU offers our students and graduates. We also wrote up a list of specific talking points for a model stump speech that our chancellors, deans, and other key staff used to make 120 presentations to business and government leaders.

    Had we not first conducted research, we would have only been able to guess how best to change some of the misinformed attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions of our key constituents.

    And finally, perhaps our most important piece of advice:
  5. Hang on tight. Moving from a news bureau model to a marketing approach can be exciting and rewarding—but it will also be a roller-coaster ride you won't soon forget.
About the Author Christopher Simpson

Christopher Simpson is the CEO and partner of SimpsonScarborough.

 

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