One of the biggest challenges facing universities globally is the disconnect between strategy and communications output. Often, the thinking of strategic leadership and marketing is misaligned — instead of working together, they sit separately and siloed, putting brands on the back foot due to lack of unification and clarity.
Durham University is an institution that has found the solution — and it all lies in collaboration. We sat down with John Prichard (Chair of Russell Group Directors of Strategy, Planning and Insight, Director at Durham University, and Board Trustee for Groundwork) and Lucian Hudson (Director of Advancement, Marketing and Communications at Durham University) to discuss why a close relationship between strategic leadership and the marketing team has enabled them to develop a powerful university brand, and why strategy plays such an important role within higher education institutions.
Providing effective communication in the face of change
It’s no secret that university communications teams had to adapt quickly in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in institution closures and a very different way of learning for students. However, at some point, teams needed to start thinking about recovery; what did a post-pandemic world look like for them? How would their approach to communications need to change and where could it be improved?
A strong relationship between strategy and marketing enables teams to be reactive and proactive in the face of change, which as we know, can come at any time. It secures a flow of trusted and informed communication, whilst being clear about what the organisation needs to communicate — from the top down, but also from the ground up — establishing
strategic response, rather than reactive panic.
“[Strategic communications] informs marketing communications, fundraising, positioning of an institution, […] the relationships that are critical to an organisation’s success. I’ve worked on crises, on change, on recovery, on being proactive as well as reactive, and I can see huge value in organisations making more of their communications both for external and internal reasons. […] [The Pandemic] created a new set of challenges and opportunities. I think effective communications helps with that in terms of building trust, making sure information is shared, but also gathering insights […] and using that to inform the further development of the organisation.”
Building audience trust and reputation through a unified voice and clarified messaging
A solid strategy breaks down the fundamentals of how a university thinks of itself and connects with the outside world, and these two areas are key to forming perceptions and building reputation. It’s not enough for these ideas to sit within the leadership team alone they need complete team buy-in to make and impact and build a powerful brand.
Every touch-point at a university is sending a message — the way you welcome students, how you teach them, the facilities you provide, the way in which your entire faculty communicate — they all reinforce who the university is and what it’s trying to achieve. They are all reputation building.
Strategy forges a path for every stakeholder to be more coordinated and thoughtful in the way they pull together to reinforce the university message. It embeds a clarity around what the university is about, and the importance of a unified voice to build trust with external audiences.
This sense of cohesion through strategy also finds its way into clearer messaging within marketing content — it impacts the quality of prospectuses, websites, and social media. A strategy-backed marketing plan builds credible and consistent communication.
Gathering insights to inform development and growth
Taking a strategic approach almost always includes data-driven insights so teams can make informed decisions based on high quality evidence.
A range of qualitative and quantitative data makes room for marketing and leadership teams to assess where challenges lie and opportunities may rise. Insights help recognise the potential that exists so that key individuals can come together to start dialogues and build practical programmes that will inform development and growth.
Ultimately, being data-informed through strategy allows universities to evaluate their positioning and invest in certain areas with a clear idea of what the return on engagement and investment will be.
“We’re about working in partnership; helping people to make informed decisions based on high quality evidence and really helping them to undertake the key actions that they need to take forward university strategy. So it’s about helping people to have real insight into what those critical challenges are. So we bring a range of data, quantitative [and] qualitative data. Sometimes we’ve got a partial view of what’s going on, in which case we need to work in a slightly more flexible way — accept the limitations of our understanding, but think through about what the opportunities and risks are.”
Staying ahead of competition
If institutions want to capture more markets or stay ahead in university rankings, they need to be dynamic and adaptive. Whether a university has been around for 20 or 200 years, the world is constantly changing and it needs to be changing with it.
A strategy presents the framework from which universities can take a proactive view on its management of adaptation so that where it does face competition, it can be ahead of it rather than behind it.
“Where you get bigger success, the biggest impact, is where you can be more strategic and more proactive. And that means a very close alignment between the work that someone in John’s role does and the work that someone in my role does as Director of Advancement, Marketing and Communications. A strategy to me is always about what it takes to survive and thrive. Strategy is the way or a way in which you take a more proactive view of what the risks [and] the opportunities [are] and try to navigate within your field of agency — what you can achieve given the resources and the powers and the influence that you have at your disposal.”
Encouraging an ethos of collaboration across departments
Yes, strategy has a top down dimension to it, but it only works if it’s adopted from the ground up; it provides an infrastructure, but can only operate effectively when it’s delivered in close collaboration between teams.
When a strategy has internal buy-in, it encourages and enforces an ethos of collaboration across departments because it recognises that everyone’s work informs each other’s.
A collective strategy makes staff members mindful of one another’s business objectives and how they can all support the university’s strategic priorities if they work together.
“There are things which are absolutely down to me and my team and marketing communications, whether it’s paid, earned, [or] shared channels, but there’s also a side which is — we have to work with others to get the results; achieve the results, and there’s a space which is I call I call freedom within a framework, where you do rely on others to see like you what the bigger picture is and to play their part which fulfils what they need to do in their role, but can also reinforce what the organisation as a whole needs to achieve.”
Marketing in a more coordinated way
Strategy inspires confidence and competence in what the marketing department is trying to achieve.
Whilst the strategic output of the institution looks at the long term, it also supports marketing teams to determine how to make the right moves, right now and build platforms that send out the right message.
Marketing plans with strategic backing are less hap-hazard and more aligned with particular objectives; ensuring that of all the priorities they’re setting are the ones that will make the biggest difference.
“Sometimes [external communication] requires a pan-university perspective. We’ve got many excellent stories we could promote and market […] but just can’t do everything. And we know from working with the media, they too have a limit to how much they can hear from any one institution. […] Therefore that requires quite a high degree of coordination. The way we’ve established that is by regular interaction with individual faculties; […] working with particular departments and indeed research institutes and particularly through the marketing side, establishing marketing and communication strategies that have at their heart, whatever the faculty itself wants to achieve. And this is where [strategy] is so critical — so that we all push in the same direction. We’re all mindful of one another’s business objectives and supporting the university’s strategic priorities.”
Ensuring everyone is aligned with purpose and bigger picture goals
Strategy must connect on a deep level with the university purpose — it must give a very clear sense of what the university’s fundamental set of values is, what’s distinctive about it as an institution, and how it needs to align itself within the sector.
Once this information is mapped out, it gives internal and external staff and stakeholders an understanding of the broader context of and foundations on which they operate.
Of course, the extent of which different team members engage with strategy will vary — but it still sets and defines the context within which they’re working. It develops an understanding in broad terms what the university is trying to achieve, how it is relevant to their role, and what they can do to play a part in it. It sets the tone for people to come together with a stronger drive around university purpose.
“Strategy has to connect in quite a deep way with the university purpose. So, what are the fundamentals of what your research, what you’re teaching, what your wider student experiences are concerned with, [and they] have to boot back in a very clear sense [to a] fundamental set of values. What is distinctive about your institution. And those things then need to align. And they need to align quite deeply across the institution.”
Creating meaningful content
Whether it’s to enhance reputation, drive philanthropy, or critically, just engaging more meaningfully with your communities — strategy lays the foundation to do this effectively.
Sometimes, because it helps you choose what not to do.
No MarComms team can do everything, but strategy sets you parameters and priorities so that when it comes to creating content, it’s purposeful, considered, and effective. A strong strategy helps streamline your thinking so that you can be more selective with what you’re working on and deliver greater impact and influence through your marketing channels.
“We’ve always been a recruiting university, but even more so now if we want to capture more of the international market, we need for our brand to be much better known. It’s a strong brand and one which we people on the whole have very positive associations with, but we still face challenges. […] I think we have our work cut out in this environment to make sure that more people know about us for the right reasons. […] That means bringing out much more out content — being very clear in that we are working with champions, […] being very clear about the channels that we have available to us. We’re being a little bit more selective so that what we are working on […] does deliver greater impact and influence.”
Promoting a of sense of constant evolution
The thing about strategies is that they’re always in a state of change and development -they’re never still or static and certainly won’t last you a life-time in a world that’s dynamic and different year on year.
By leading with strategy, you are leading with a sense of constant evolution and creating a culture that welcomes progress and self-betterment.
“Continued commitment to have people shadowing others in their roles, continued commitment to give people development opportunities, continued opportunity to try things out and not necessarily be successful first time around, to create the space where you can try and innovate and not just be worried about making mistakes, I think is fundamental to improving an environment where evidence matters, and it matters that the truth is told and it’s interpreted and there is a broader understanding of how you can use those facts for continuous improvements.”
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