February 3, 2012

Corporate Speak vs. The Language of Higher Ed

I first started my career in marketing communications working at a PR/marketing firm. We pitched to potential clients from many industries, networked with peers from other firms, and helped sell a variety of products. To do our work, we constantly used the language of quickly emerging trends: buzz words. When I made the move to higher education, I quickly realized (after some stressful interactions) that my words weren’t effective in my new environment.

During the time since my rather harsh initiation, I have witnessed newly-hired senior leaders, many from “corporate America,” unwittingly and to poor effect employ marketing terminology that helped them succeed in their previous jobs. Members of the academy often perceive such language negatively. Its use can result in unproductive or distant working relationships between communicators, faculty, and leaders.

Why No Marketing Lingo in Higher Ed?

I believe such alienation occurs because experienced University faculty and administrators are (rightly) uncomfortable with references to “selling” or “marketing” their institution. Why? Because education is not a product in the same way that a car is. Despite some cynical efforts to view students as consumers, true educators believe that education is not about consumption, it is about intellectual transformation and knowledge production. Although much marketing jargon has similar meaning in higher education communications, deans, department chairs, and professors perceive “corporate speak” as highly unsophisticated and unequal to the task of telling an institution’s story.

Thus, when University communicators use outsider corporate speak to describe how they will “sell” a college or university, they telegraph the message that they are not familiar with the traditions and mission of higher education. Some areas of universities, such as business schools, are somewhat more tolerant of such language, but for the most part corporate speak is considered insensitive to the unique value and dignity of teaching and learning. Academics see corporate business references as a signal that the communicator in question will attempt to cheapen the identity of the institution.

For example, after watching a presentation by a senior communicator, I recall hearing a faculty member remark that “we are not a credit card company” and “this person is clearly from the outside and doesn’t get what we do or why we’re here.” (Related sidenote: the use of corporate speak during a vendor presentation is an indicator that the project may not go well.)

Suggested Translations

However, it is definitely possible to translate the language of marketing best practices to higher education communications. Here is a list of translated terms that I’ve found useful as I’ve served in higher education.

Corporate SpeakHigher Education Language
Advertise / -ingTell story / Storytelling
BillableChargeback (I hope you never need this one)
Bottom lineIntended outcome
InfrastructureStaff, skill, resource
Repurpose(Just don’t ever use-or do-this)
ROIPerception by others
Target marketAudience
WeaknessOpportunity to improve

Final Thought

Of course, embracing a new culture requires that one must reflect on and internalize its traditions and ideals, not merely learn the language just to achieve objectives. Although the words and phrases I translated above have similar meanings, they are not exactly identical. Using the phrases appropriate to the culture of higher education signals that you do, indeed, respect and believe in its unique mission. You understand that “telling a story” is not the same as “advertising a product.”