The Evolving Role of the Communications Professional
When COVID-19 struck, I considered myself one of the lucky directors of communications in education. I was fortunate to already be a student and practitioner of change management, which helped me be more comfortable with discomfort through the disruption our world and our industry endured.
In early 2018, I was asked to oversee change management for Tallahassee Community College’s largest technology change in decades: the implementation of a brand-new student information system, Workday Student. This was in addition to my responsibilities as director of communications and marketing at TCC, in Florida, U.S.
My shift from communicator to change manager was brought about by two factors. One was having the right skill set to help with change. When asked to take on this new responsibility, I had just wrapped adjunct teaching a graduate-level consumer behavior course at nearby Florida State University. My mind was primed to think about human behavior and how we can encourage target audiences to buy in.
The second factor was working for a college with a smaller staff. Many institutions, including community colleges such as mine, need to leverage the best existing staff to help with new initiatives and large projects.
TCC’s Workday implementation was an investment with high stakes. My office was asked to lead, coordinate, and support the people side of change and ensure that the multitude of departments working on the implementation understood how their work could impact other areas.
Communications professionals are often tapped to wear the “other duties as assigned” hat, as we are an energetic group that is generally ready to contribute all means possible to take projects to the finish line. A few months into juggling my new role, my title at TCC formally changed to director of strategic communications and change management. (We restructured our operation to add another director to oversee marketing.)
Lately, during the pandemic, it seems that communications professionals have been stuck in “always-on” mode, busily helping our institutions through challenges. We may not have had an opportunity to pause and reflect on what is happening in our own profession. Fellow advancement colleagues have likely been asked to help their institutions through transformation in some capacity since the onset of the pandemic. It is foreseeable that in the future more marketing and communications folks may be asked to take on an expanded role. Change management helps with the people side of change. And who knows how to weave together compelling messages to motivate people to move to action better than a communications professional?
I have found that my story is not unique. Prior to the pandemic, I attended a change management certification training where I met Amy Athey McDonald, associate vice president for communications and strategy in the Office of Communications at the University of Rochester, New York, U.S. She and I connected over how we were incorporating change management into our communications roles.
“A number of things we do as communicators naturally fit into some of the core skills of change management,” McDonald says. “We think audience first. Having a conversation with audiences may not be as natural to some disciplines that require other skill sets.”
She shares that there’s a good case to be made for why communications should be a leading partner in change management.
“So often we are seen as [providing] a service function when really we are strategic partners,” McDonald says. “When you are looking at what has to get done in change management, so many of those tasks involve effective communications.”
Kate McSweeney, director of communications, alumni, and development at University College Cork in Ireland, recognizes that it is an organization’s people who help an organization change. Communications professionals know how to approach key audiences with the end goal in mind.
“Successful change leaders focus on people first, and then on the process and improvement that needs to be implemented,” she says. “Strong communication skills, and the ability to effectively listen to the needs of your team or strategic constituents, are the foundations for success.”
Change is constant, and incorporating a change mindset into operations can help an institution thrive when obstacles are placed on its path. Organizations should use a change management framework on high-stakes projects, but I’ve also found that applying change management’s guiding principles can help with a variety of projects and initiatives of all sizes.
Approaching Change with Intention
Once I received the green light to take charge of change management for TCC’s student information system deployment, I scoured the internet researching the subject and talked to consultants who were kind enough to chat, knowing a contract was not in our budget. I compared notes with other practitioners who were helping their organizations navigate change. Others with experience in change management advised me to find the change model that works best for our institution and project.
I learned about the ADKAR model from Prosci, an organization that combines scientific research with the people side of change to help find results-focused solutions that achieve a desired outcome. I’d heard that the model works well, so I read the Prosci-published book, ADKAR: A Model for Change in Business, Government and Our Community, from cover to cover.
The ADKAR acronym stands for awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, and reinforcement. This model can be easily unpacked. As advancement professionals, we are adept in:
- creating awareness for our cause;
- building desire for change, which requires communicating a clear vision of why we are making this change and how we will see the benefits of the change;
- sharing information, or knowledge, to help stakeholders through the change;
- helping others adapt or adopt something new, or ability, which claimed center stage during the pandemic when we abruptly shifted to remote learning and working and needed to train on new skills and unfamiliar technology;
- empowering people to know how to move forward and using reinforcement to remind them why this change is important.
Desire and reinforcement are two areas that can be overlooked, but are critical to this model. Change happens at the individual level. To help decrease resistance and increase acceptance, state the shared purpose for the change, repeat it, and ask for feedback. Reinforcement helps sustain the change and can make that change a part of the organization’s culture. Adjust as needed and celebrate wins along the way.
Gustavo Hexsel Segui knows this firsthand. The director of marketing and advancement at the International School of Curitiba, Brazil, shares the importance of the nonprofit school’s vision when creating a desire for change.
“Everything related to change in our school has our mission and vision as a starting point. The ‘start with the why’ concept from author Simon Sinek is always present when we communicate, since it’s a powerful way to convey decisions or change in directions without losing sight of who we are,” Segui says, adding that the international school has developed a deep sense of purpose around its mission: Everyone Learning Everywhere. “This has been an important North Star. Purpose, above all else, enables decision making at speed, while keeping everyone together and connected to our identity in an ever-changing environment.”
Rochester’s McDonald notes the importance of acknowledging staff for exceptional work to reinforce messaging. In 2020, the University of Rochester Medical Center team launched “UR Heroes” featuring some of its frontline healthcare staff who worked tirelessly during the pandemic. Digital screens throughout the institution also featured “UR Heroes” as part of this program, which has been relaunched as URMC #ICARE.
To help people through change, be intentional about sharing why they are changing, spend time empowering people with how to operate within the new circumstances, and acknowledge who is a part of this transformation.
“The strategic change leadership and the tactical change management need to be integrated throughout—from inception until long after the change has been implemented—so you’re actually monitoring and ensuring that you deliver the results you want and can make adjustments along the way,” says Sarah Collie, associate vice president for organizational excellence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, U.S.
A quality and improvement program, such as the one implemented by UVA, supports and enables institutional goals and priorities and helps build organizational capacity for change, improvement, and innovation.
Disruption Got Us ‘Unstuck’
My college became more resilient throughout the Workday Student deployment, but, of course, TCC never anticipated the disruption brought on by the pandemic. Challenges such as safety and access to information remained critical while we found new ways of operating. The education industry was given an opportunity to do things differently, welcomed or not. Perhaps we needed a catalyst to help us realize that we can be more agile.
When my college moved to remote working and learning in March 2020, we were just two months away from our full Workday launch. All of the planned in-person activities to help students, faculty, and staff had to be scrapped in favor of online assistance. While building webpages for COVID-19 updates and virtual commencement, my office also fast-tracked a page to help students find resources and connect with staff for virtual help with the new system.
We also redirected a lot of student communications to MYTCC, an internal portal system that we had set up just six months before the start of the pandemic. My office and TCC’s information technology department collaborated with vendor Campus to launch this online platform that proved to be critical to how we engaged remotely. Students were naturally drawn to this tool and its social media-like interface. Some staff who were accustomed to assisting students in their offices needed coaching on how to prioritize students’ requests for help using this digital platform.
Through comments on MYTCC and survey findings, we saw early on that an online-only mode of learning would not be enough to meet our students’ needs. The college created TCC LIVE, synchronous format classes, and transitioned support services including academic coaching and tutoring from optional to intentional by embedding these staff members into the class instruction in some gateway courses. Students needed to hear from us about how to access these services, so we launched a robust outreach plan using tactics from personalized direct mail to targeted digital ads.
Our ability to evolve and meet students’ needs during the pandemic paid off. Success rates for all credit-taking TCC students increased by 3% when comparing fall 2019 to fall 2020. The jump was 8% for first-time college students over the same period.
“I’m proud to say that our college has successfully ranked as one of the 10 finalists for the Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence,” TCC President Jim Murdaugh says, before describing some of the institution’s achievements during the pandemic. We “launched Workday Student, defied national trends of significantly declining enrollments, [and] helped thousands of students impacted by the pandemic with emergency aid grants including those who were facing eviction from their homes.”
Pride is echoed throughout institutions of all types and sizes. The drive to help students and constituents during these challenging times has fueled leadership and advancement professionals.
“In a time of crisis, in a year of unprecedented uncertainty and grief, it is natural to lament the losses, to be lost in the frustration of what should be,” says Kirsten Adams, head of school at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. “As we have had to reimagine and reconsider a number of events and programs, we have had the unique opportunity to look closely at those things that ‘have always just been done this way.’ And we have found that while we want many of these things to come back as soon as it is safely possible to do so, there are other things that we have been able to change for the better.”
Adams says that the Episcopal day school’s community is stronger than ever, and a change mindset has allowed them to pivot, adjust, and reexamine how the school communicates, delivers material to students, and supports a diversity of learners.
“I keep saying that I feel like we are unstuck,” she says. “We can reimagine, dream, and envision new possibilities.”
CETYS Universidad, in Baja California, Mexico, also used the crisis of the pandemic to find new ways of doing business. In March 2020 the institution formed a crisis team with six committees, including the Strategic Thinking and Planning Committee, which focused on where CETYS could be after the pandemic. Led by Carlos H. Garcia, director of institutional relations and chief of staff, this group’s charter was to present the administration with long-term recommendations with a change management perspective.
“The group realized that the pandemic forced the institution to accept things that they had been reluctant to accept in the past,” Garcia says.
A completely online MBA program had been discussed for years, but there was resistance to moving forward until the pandemic. With a new focus on change, CETYS leaders now understand the feasibility of the online program, which they are presently driving towards. The university also permanently expanded a visiting professors program with faculty from abroad who can participate using technology rather than traveling.
Continuing to Evolve
The change management aspects of TCC’s Workday implementation prepared me and my college to adapt and this certainly helped as we faced challenges brought about by the pandemic. The experience has helped my institution think of how we support our students and how we can leverage technology to facilitate this.
My current change management project is focused on helping the college alter the way we communicate with students. This began by inventorying and mapping current communications to see what is being sent from various offices, looking for consistent messaging, tone, and voice, and evaluating timing, volume, and delivery mechanisms for the messages. The strategic goal is to make the student experience easier by providing clear, consistent, and timely personalized communications that will help students from admissions to graduation.
I have collaborated with TCC’s IT department, which helped build an online tool to allow us to track and measure the effectiveness of communications. This system notifies senders when messages should be sent out and helps schedule recurring communications. This online system, along with our openness to change, will help us refine our operations.
Rochester’s McDonald acknowledges the huge impact of a change management mindset.
“I’m now able to take a step back and recognize when change management is needed,” she says, mentioning her hope that the processes will help break down some of the silos at her institution. “We’re starting to see buy-in and value for change management and it’s now actually part of conversations that are happening at the most senior level.”
At the University of Virginia, staff are intentionally focusing on developing individual skills and competencies to build organizational capacity for change improvement and innovation, according to Mary Brackett, senior associate for organizational excellence. She sees increasing energy around deliberate change management strategies.
“I’ve noticed people are starting to ask the right questions before rolling out big changes that affect large populations,” she says. “Awareness of the benefits of employing an intentional and structured change management approach has increased engagement with our community and stakeholders.”
Awareness is also critical when it comes to the importance of advancement professionals and the dynamic role that we play in moving our institutions forward. This is an amazing time to work in advancement as we have learned how to be “unstuck” from the status quo.
Communications professionals have new opportunities to follow an intentional change management model to help our institutions continue to transform. There are good things around the corner—whether we find a silver lining or new challenges that will help us grow.
Personalize to Build Acceptance
Adapting to change happens at an individual level—we can help build acceptance and decrease resistance by personalizing any time possible. One of Tallahassee Community College’s most comprehensive efforts to personalize pertained to our 2020 virtual commencement celebration. At a time when educators, graduates, and families shared in the disappointment of not celebrating in person, we sought creative ways to honor our graduates and help them through feelings of loss for a milestone experience.
Our communications and marketing team looked for ways to add a personal touch so that each graduate felt recognized for individual accomplishments. Photos submitted by grads were used in a multitude of ways including a graduation photo collage, video, social media graphics, personalized news releases, and more. We personalized each graduate’s commencement program and we sent congratulatory letters to each graduate’s family. We used artificial intelligence system Merit Pages to send a news release to each graduate’s hometown newspaper, high school, and elected officials. Graduates also received an achievement recognition message that they could easily share on their social media.
TCC’s virtual celebration was honored with the Association of Florida Colleges’ highest recognition in 2020, the Exemplary Practice Award. Most importantly, this comprehensive virtual celebration was meaningful for our grads and their families.
Kate McSweeney and University College Cork also personalized communications with constituents during the pandemic.
“How our alumni, supporters, and friends interpret their current life experiences is central to our content strategy, which aims to make meaning by connecting them to their alma mater and to each other,” she says. "We successfully achieved this through a complementary communications strategy.”
McSweeney says UCC disseminated a series of personalized letters from the university’s president. In a time of change, this strategy helped connect the institution’s values with the needs of its constituents.