February 21, 2013

Mentor Your Digital Team

I was privileged to participate in a panel discussion at the College Board’s Midwestern Forum in Chicago. It was quite an honor to be invited and to contribute to the discussion. Thank you, College Board, for the opportunity. Our panel discussion was titled, “Communicating to Students and the Public in the Noise and Clutter of Today's Media.” We covered many topics. Our moderator, John Lawlor (@johntlawlor), did a great job of guiding and shaping the discussion, and he also created a helpful Storify of the panel discussion.

It is, of course, impossible to say everything and to cover all of one’s thoughts and opinions in this setting. My goal for the panel was to share some experiences, wisdom, and try to encourage others to continue learning. I hope we accomplished this goal.

As a follow up to the panel, I would like to share some extended ideas in response to one of the questions directed to me, which was, “How can digital communications be integrated into existing communications practices?”

How can digital communications be integrated into existing communications practices?

When I first read this question in preparation for the panel, my initial response was that the better question to ask might be: “How can existing communications practices be integrated into digital platforms?” The initial wording of the question illustrates what I see as a continuing disconnect between the ubiquity of digital in our society and the lack of acceptance of digital communications into the culture of higher education marketing. Nevertheless, the initial question is still complicated and challenging.

I believe that higher education is sloooowly moving its way forward into digital communications. There are so many success stories and fantastic teams at many universities and colleges. However, digital is still isolated, siloed, and compartmentalized so often. Why is integration taking so long? Something is missing.

Digital Staff Needs Faculty Mentors

If an organization only seeks to integrate digital into existing communications, it will fail to maximize the potential of digital. Signs of this are: websites that are copies of print materials, writers told to “repurpose” content for the web, and digital only being heralded for how it is made, not why it is made.

To succeed, higher education must integrate digital communications into the culture of academia itself. One way to do this is to eliminate barriers between digital staff and your institution’s faculty. Digital teams need to learn your traditions, goals, and objectives through direct participation and face-to-face conversations. Many of the most talented digital communicators and producers come from outside of academia. In order for your organization to advance, it is not about digital communicators teaching faculty and administrators to use Twitter or the same people emailing them course descriptions and admissions packets to be posted online -- it is about integrating digital communicators into the daily life and practices of academia.

I was privileged at one institution to be the first strategist to assist the university’s oldest and largest college as it transitioned to the culture of digital. My first meetings with faculty leadership were odd, to put it mildly. Some of the faculty members were confrontational--openly worried that my goal was to force all content into templates and to homogenize their subject matter into generic, corporate-looking branding vehicles for the university. They also recognized their lack of expertise when it came to digital communications; a position that we all would find uncomfortable and intimidating. At the same time, because of their status as experts in their fields, I was as nervous as they were about working together. But, we all knew that the college needed to take huge steps forward into digital communications, so partnering made logical sense. Thankfully, we were able to put aside our fears and get down to the business of producing excellent work.

In the end, we were successful because the dean’s office put the time into mentoring me. The associate dean assigned to supervise me as I created a new staff and produced 30+ websites understood the value of mentoring. This should not come as a surprise, because most faculty have a well-honed ability to mentor upcoming professionals, teaching and guiding undergraduates and graduate students as they do.

This particular associate dean quickly organized monthly breakfast meetings with me and the new staff, held faculty meetings so that I could get to know and learn about each department’s culture, and she invited me into planning meetings, visits from alumni and benefactors, and thought leaders. She included my staff in holiday parties, lectures, and discussions on topics central to the mission of higher education: academic freedom, operational management, and diversity. In essence, I shared what I knew about digital communications and the faculty of the college taught me higher education leadership. We created a collaborative partnership.

If you’re on a digital team:
  • Reach out and find faculty mentors who have an interest or curiosity about digital communications.
  • Take a student-guided campus tour
  • Go to classes. What a novel idea. How many of digital communicators have actually seen or attended a class at your college/university?
  • Go to conferences that don’t only include people from digital
  • Build a resource of your organization’s history, leaders, traditions, and honors (this should already exist in your PR department). Incentivize the digital team to learn this material inside and out.
  • At your next department/office retreat, create a quiz with this material. Make it a game. Who can answer correctly the most trivia questions about your buildings, people, history and traditions?

If you’re an administrator or faculty member:
  • Faculty: do what you do best - teach and mentor. Digital needs you, and you need digital.
  • Recognize that digital is new, evolving, and growing.
  • Invite digital communicators to your planning meetings and visits from alumni and benefactors.
  • Share your operational goals and objectives. Be ready to articulate what success means and how you are evaluated. Be clear about your goals.
  • Be candid about your comfort-level with digital communications

So, how can digital communications be integrated into existing communications practices?

The answer is simple. Cultural immersion. If you’re a digital communicator, think of yourself as a student studying abroad who should try to understand the traditions of the place you’re visiting before judging it. And if you’re an administrator or faculty member in charge of making a digital communications staff members successful, reach out to them just as you would an exchange student. We want to learn your language, customs, and traditions. And, yes, we want to teach you ours.