Editor’s note: This article is part of a monthly series provided by the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.
On weekend mornings in the summer, Clarendon College President Robert K. Riza used to think he could mow his lawn at his home in the Texas Panhandle, then immediately head to a hardware store without so much as changing his clothes. But he soon realized the error of his ways.
After five years in his post, Riza is so well-known and respected in his largely rural community that he is approached by residents at every turn. These residents talk to him about his college or the community’s needs, regardless of his casual attire or occasional dusting from fresh-cut grass.
“It’s gotten to the point that I have to shower and dress better if I’m just heading to the store,” he says. “I don’t want to look badly and seem unfriendly. To me, it’s all about being approachable.”
Interacting with intention
Riza’s hardware store experience is a by-product of a defined strategy many higher-education leaders – with the full support of their marketing and communication departments – would do well to embrace with new-found gusto. The strategy? It’s called intentional engagement.
In short, intentional engagement involves strategically guiding leaders to interact with specific community stakeholders for specific, mutually beneficial reasons. It requires more than having a college president shake hands with local residents and business leaders at one-time events. Rather, if done correctly, administrators who deploy intentional engagement become woven into the fabric of their surroundings and help shape the destinies of their institutions and their communities.
College communication professionals can significantly help in this process. How, exactly? Through careful planning, participation in college and community visioning sessions and by prioritizing the college administrator’s time.
The University of Arkansas Community College at Batesville (UACCB), for example, has successfully deployed intentional engagement for many years.
“Our chancellor, Deborah Frazier, is the face of the college,” says Hannah Keller Flanery, communications and marketing coordinator at UACCB and the former assistant to the chancellor. “She’s a natural and is very hands on with our board of advisers, businesses and industries.”
Flanery points to UACCB’s involvement with a massive community project called Impact Independence County (https://impact.batesvilleareaalliance.com), a 10-year, grassroots community development plan for Independence County where UABBC is located, as one of the college’s best intentional engagement efforts.
“The Chamber of Commerce approached us about becoming involved in this strategic community plan, and we said, ‘absolutely,’” Flanery says. “We (UACCB) hosted a community-wide town hall where residents from across the county were able to provide feedback on areas where they would like to see improvement and growth within the community. After that, subcommittees were formed that focused on four key areas as a result of the community’s feedback. Many of UACCB’s faculty and staff members are volunteers on these subcommittees. It’s really been an all-encompassing effort.”
The college’s involvement in the long-range community planning effort provides significant dividends to UACCB.
“It has not only benefitted our brand and made UACCB even more visible within the community, but it has also helped further solidify our partnerships with area high schools and business and industry partners,” says Flanery. “We’re seen as the community hub. We host performing arts events that are open to the community as well as business events. We’re viewed as the place to be.”
Tap your staff’s knowledge
But not all presidents are as naturally skilled at the notion of intentional engagement as UACCB’s Frazier or Clarendon College’s Riza. How can new college leaders become more intentionally engaged? Use your marketing and communications staff to pave the way.
Muddassir Siddiqi of Houston Community College’s (HCC) Central College was new to Houston and HCC when he was named one of the college’s six presidents in 2017. The former Chicago-area community college leader arrived with a reputation for strong community involvement, but he knew very little about the culture and politics of the nation’s fourth-largest city. His community engagement strategy? He hit the ground running by using his communication department’s expertise to make critical introductions.
“Communications and community outreach are very important to any new president’s relationship with the community,” says Siddiqi, who oversees a college of 12,300 students in two locations. “They guide the president on where to go. They form our college’s and the president’s communications strategy. They are community partners with the president.”
These days, Siddiqi attends daily meetings with key members in his college’s service area. He stays on the go, including a steady stream of weekend community appointments. And in just under two years, Siddiqi has earned a reputation as a solid, community-minded leader who is bringing new programs and students to the college.
“Your communications team helps you identify your stakeholders, the people who are important to your services, and the people who can inform you about things to help you in your decision-making processes,” Siddiqi explains. “As president, you can’t be everywhere. You have to prioritize events. Your community outreach team can help with this.”
Being part of the community
Using a variety of intentional engagement strategies is a large part of Siddiqi’s overall community outreach plan. While he serves on a number of mainstream Houston organizations and non-profit boards, and also welcomes elected officials and groups to his campus, Siddiqi also believes in basic, grass-roots networking.
“I patronize all the local eateries,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I meet and talk to all kinds of people that way.”
A president’s length of tenure also can make a difference in how effective an intentional engagement strategy can be. Short-term college governance or constant turnover may harm the effort. Consistent, long-term leadership is ideal. UACCB’s Frazier, who oversees a college with approximately 1,300 students, has been with UACCB for 30 years, 11 of which as its chancellor.
“I don’t think I’ve been anywhere in town where she wasn’t known,” Flanery says. “That is fantastic for us.”
Inheriting a tradition of intentional engagement makes deploying a college’s plan easier to accomplish. That is the case with Clarendon College’s Riza.
“I was brought up by a guy who said ‘we have to be in the community,’” says Riza. “And not just a little bit. I’m the immediate past president of the Lion’s Club, my wife is in the chapter, and I belong to two Rotary Clubs. But I also meet monthly with all area school districts, the county judge, superintendents, and the Economic Development Corporation. These are musts that I knew I had to do.”
But Riza’s desire to intentionally engage his college’s service area takes work – and a considerable amount of mileage. Clarendon College, with an enrollment of 1,639 students, covers six counties and about 11,000 square miles in the northeast part of the Texas Panhandle. The college has four campuses situated about 45 minutes away from each other.
“I’ve put on 100,000 miles on my car in just four years,” Riza explains. “But we’ve increased our enrollment by 500 students in the last five years. Engagement definitely hasn’t hurt us.”
But one essential element is imperative to implementing a college administrator’s intentional engagement strategy, he says. The administrator has to enjoy being seen – and heard.
“I’m known to a lot of people because I’m available to a lot of people,” Riza says. “I will speak to any group at any time. The only drawback is how long you want me to talk?”