Outreach for a new president

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.

The interviews have concluded, the public forums have been held and the announcement has been made…congratulations, your institution has selected its new president.

If you aren’t in this position now, chances are you will be soon. In fact, nearly one in four community colleges will hire a new president this year, due to a projected wave of retiring college leaders across the country. From a communications perspective, will you be ready to make the most of this opportunity?

Hiring a new president can be one of the most powerful outward-facing milestones in a college’s history, and yet, after the announcement, few community colleges engage in the kind of new-president marketing that makes the most of the moment.

In my career, I’ve had the opportunity to play a role in the onboarding of seven community college presidents — some more successfully than others. Though each leader was unique, I’ve learned that every new college president can benefit from close attention to a few critical marketing decisions.

What works

Here’s my marketing checklist for making the difference between a modest beginning and a presidential launch that truly spurs excitement:

Establish your president as a brand champion right away. Your college has chosen the new president…now your new president needs to signal she chooses your college back. The president is a brand asset to your college. Whether outgoing or introverted, the president needs to signal a passion and commitment for all that you stand for – even before day one.

Send your new president a box of your best college swag – scarves and ties, lapel pins, car decals – and ask the new leader to take candid photos with the swag being used and worn. Lighthearted social media posts from the marketing team along the lines of, “Our new president can’t wait to wear this tie!” go further to position the president as a brand champion than any prepared speech.

Launch a presidential social media platform. Should your president be on social media? Yes. In fact, social media’s proven utility as a method for establishing thought leadership no longer makes this decision a question of “if” but “how.”

Beginning a new career chapter provides a natural jumping off point for a Twitter account or other platform that works with the president’s persona. Social media doesn’t have to be managed solely by the president (and, in fact, will likely be best with communications staff support and ghost writing), but launching a new account or two sends a message that this president is committed to honest, transparent communication and has something valuable to say.

Introduce president to the public in a way that advances your values. Do you have a public reception for the new president or a business partner breakfast? Do you arrange editorial visits with local media or wait a few months and opt for a press packet now? Depending on your community, these choices are opportunities to reaffirm your institutional values as a whole – not just introduce your new leader.

I once worked with a president who felt a public inauguration was the best strategy. We held the event — but in a way that underscored our uniqueness as a community college. It included plenty of diverse student and community speakers who could attest to the critical role of the institution in the region. The result was a powerful and memorable splash that positioned the college for a new fundraising campaign.

Build your president’s unique persona. Is your president a fly fisherman? Does she collect rocks? Does he play the piano? Does she love baseball? It’s a proven marketing strategy: the more you can personalize your leader, the more he or she earns trust and likeability points. Take photos of presidents interacting with the things they find most inspiring and consider sharing them on a presidential blog or as part of a presidential address.

President Santa Ono, formally of University of Cincinnati and now with University of British Columbia, is famous for being a big fan of donuts and Taylor Swift music. The spark of humor and personality this colorful detail provides has served as a lure for much deeper institutional relationships.

Capitalize on symbolic moments in time. Remember the first day of college? So will the public, if you make the president’s first day a symbolically important event. Regardless of your president’s actual start date, choosing a symbolic “first day” can provide a newsworthiness that appeals to media reporters as well as the college community.

One of the best tactics I’ve observed is an all-day “first day” event that led the new president on a tour around the college district. With each tour stop, students and staff led the president to engage in a particular activity that highlighted the uniqueness of the location…at the pottery lab, he worked with clay…at the diesel and automotive center he drove a retrofitted bulldozer. The community was invited to follow along with live coverage posted online.

Don’t have the ability to invest in such a widespread event? Even considering a creative start to the day can help position the president. Why not have the president take the shuttle to campus with students? Invite a reporter to share the ride.

Don’t ignore the role of the spouse or partner. Not every spouse wants to play a role in his or her partner’s new job, but serving as a college president provides special opportunities for the family to be included. Ask for a meeting between communication staff and the president’s family. Would they like to host people in their home? Would the family like to attend events? Does the president’s partner feel passionately about a certain community cause?

A spouse can be a powerful advocate for the college without the same measure of scrutiny. Particularly with fundraising efforts, an honorary role can signal a shared family commitment to the mission of the institution.

Facilitate a symbolic handoff between the old president and the new leader. Presidential transitions can be momentous occasions – and they can be hard on staff. Particularly if the outgoing president has had a long tenure or has established beloved connections, the organizational change can be stressful.

The last thing you want the new president to endure is ongoing nostalgic comparison with the predecessor that undermines forward thinking. Bypass this by getting the outgoing president’s help. A video showing both presidents talking together, a shared moment on a stage or a gathering wherein the outgoing leader proudly introduces the new choice can all become powerful moments of validation and assurance.

A calculated approach

Even though it’s likely these moments will happen naturally at some point during the transition, spend some time deliberately orchestrating a strategy that honors both individuals and prepares the way for the new leader to move ahead.

The window for a new president to make a good first impression closes quickly, but, by enlisting the help of marketing, presidents can establish an exciting new direction for the college that yields support for years to come. The key is making time to engage in thoughtful, creative communications. Your employees will get to know and trust you more quickly, and your public will be more receptive to a vision that benefits the entire community.

About the Author

Jennifer Boehmer
is executive director of institutional advancement at Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon and past president of the National Council for Marketing & Public Relations, an affiliated council of the American Association of Community Colleges.