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I work with some of the brightest marketing and communications minds in the country in my business. I have yet to work with a client who wasn’t talented, thoughtful or aware of all that is happening in our business. And yet, the majority is consumed with self-doubt, frustration, sometimes fear and often a lack of joy in their chosen professions. Why are communications professionals in higher education in particular not feeling satisfied? The answers vary, yet are often interconnected:

Crisis Atmospheres
In a country that values expression, universities struggle with defining where free speech ends and incivility and hatred begins. From the current protests related to race and justice to those around rising tuition costs, it seems that students are organizing frequently and vocalizing discontent daily. In addition, universities are in essence small cities and as such they have their share of infringements – sexual harassment, rape investigations, discrimination, vandalism, theft. Even the tough, but not crisis-level situations escalate rapidly in today’s environment. It only takes one media story, one call from an alumnus, one administrative leader calling a meeting, one student sending an e-mail: if it is unpleasant, a university tends to move perhaps too quickly into crisis mode. Calling in their communications team as well as law enforcement, general counsel, academic and student affairs, alumni relations, faculty senate, leaders devote hours, even days, preparing talking points and protest protocol reviews and counseling services for topics that matter, but often do not cause mass action that will disrupt a campus. In today’s climate, any matter can ignite a flame. Daily, communications professionals are focused on these issues and feel the churn of 24/7 tensions.

As this 24/7 on-call expectation (which has always been part of the job description) materializes into real 3 a.m. conference calls and meetings called for 7 p.m., the workdays drip into work weeks and work weekends. Vacations require a smart phone in hand at all times. Wife having the baby – we’ll give you an hour. Father passed away – here are some flowers – see you tomorrow. You are the referee for tonight’s youth basketball game – check your phone at the end of every play and have a sub on hand in case you get called away. The pace, the escalation of crisis and the pressures communications professionals receive from leadership make careers feel like, well, work. The inability to balance family and personal interests creates a seething resentment that we bury as we continue to put on a professional demeanor and always speak well on behalf of our universities, no matter how we feel inside.

Leadership Pressures
Today’s university president lives in a glass house. Every utterance is dissected. Every decision questioned. Every expense scrutinized. And, work and life are inseparable. After two or three negative mentions in social media or in a news story or in a Faculty Senate meeting, even experienced presidents can get rattled. But there are many new leaders in higher education who don’t have the seasoning to don the Teflon and move forward. Their knee-jerk reactions keep the crisis pace alive and when things don’t get better fast, it seems that they like to cast blame and dispersion on their communications teams. Very little positive reinforcement and much finger-pointing and criticism causes even the most professional communications teams to self doubt, question their good instincts and cower from giving leaders the advice that they need.

We Are Expendable/ Limited Resources and High Demand
It’s amazing how our profession has grown. The tools of the trade have multiplied exponentially. “Media” is now defined as anyone who can put together a story, regardless of the outlet they use. Crises abound. Competition has stiffened. Fund-raising needs are up. Our discipline has become incredibly busy, always on the learning curve and always short on resources. And yet, communications most often remains the department that sustains first cuts when a budget move is needed. Communications leaders take positions with the promise of getting new staff and budget, only to immediately find out in their first month that none of that was possible. We know that the Web site is the top source for admissions interactions, but universities often demand that these units raise their own revenue to pay their own salaries. Presidents puff their chests around strong brand, but rarely invest in the infrastructure it takes to maintain and analyze it. A not-so-sophisticated CFO once said to me, “Your office is expendable.” That made me really want to keep coming to work.  More is expected. Less is supported. Those who have built their teams through charge-back systems find themselves in positions of enforcement and rarely held in positive light by the rest of the university. Sometimes the only thing that holds the brand together is personality – individuals who know what is best in spite of the challenges and who work together to advance the institution. With small teams and many responsibilities, communications leaders rely on relationships, team spirit and good will to get the job done well. And sometimes this approach actually works.

Painful Attacks
The communications office is often the subject of media attacks, particularly at public institutions. If a university salary story ever appears, it is inevitable that the press will call out the salaries of anyone who works in our field, and they will package the salaries as unnecessary bloat. As a result, higher ed pays a fraction of what industry pays. Salaries for high-demand positions, particularly in the digital realm, remain uncompetitive to the point of mass churn and an inability to rarely hire the best. Often the most sophisticated functions of a university communications office is delegated to new graduates or even to interns. Leaders surrounded by a dearth of experienced staff start to feel the burn quickly.

Communications Is Easy
A client told me that she had made a presentation to her Faculty Senate on the new brand that they had developed. The response was positive, however, one faculty member stood up (there’s always one) and said, “For what we pay you, I would expect a lot more. This is easy – child’s play. How can you justify the costs you incur that take away from the academic mission.” Another shares with me an experience where his president asked, in a demanding sort of way, “I don’t understand why you can’t just call the reporter and remind him how important this university is and that if he writes that negative article, he will regret it.” And another relayed this comment from a colleague in Development, “I wish I had your job. It is so easy to sit in a cubicle and write taglines. Not like having to approach alumni and ask them for money.” I don’t think I need to say more about this one.

Lack of Respect and Appreciation
In my last position, after three years, the top leaders of my university offered a “thank you” to my staff once. And that was a group e-mail sent to my team, as well as 200+ other staff about an event that was held on campus that was a huge success. Communications is a lot like those BASF commercials, “We make a lot of the products you buy better.” We are an incredible behind-the-scenes force, but are often viewed only in the sliver of our roles as spokespersons to the press. We build Web sites, posters, social media promotional campaigns, talking points and speeches, choose menus, write and design case statements and viewbooks and a host of many things that make our colleagues more effective. But when a fund-raising milestone is reached, only Development gets a high five. When admissions goals are exceeded, communications is rarely if ever credited. If your ranking improves, it was the faculty, but if it lowers, it was communications’ inability to influence reputational scores. Years without a thanks or without a simple, “I appreciate the work you have done,” takes its toll.

Not able to Use Real Talent
I leave this one for last because, right or wrong, I believe it is the top reason for burnout in our field. Communications is a broad term. Some of us are writers. Some are designers. Some are visual artists. Many are media junkies. Many are also marketers. Most of us are strategists. All of us want to measure and improve the work we do for our universities. Whether we admit it or not, each of us has a core talent set that makes us thrive. Only now that I am consulting do I see what makes me jump out of bed in the morning. At heart, I am a writer. My core skill set is marketing strategy. But in my last 9-to-5 position, I was a crisis manager most of the time. I was a media strategist much of the time. And I was a manager all the time. I had advanced to the point of not using my best talent. I was miserable and did not fully understand why. As I work with clients today, I find vice presidents who are excellent writers but who no longer write. Superb at analytics, but no resources for the tools to build measurement strategies. I see media experts trying to develop marketing strategy. I see former newspaper reporters trying hard to not feel tainted by the switch to public relations. The way that you are promoted in higher education requires you to be broad and general in your work and that often means forfeiting or at least limiting what it is that you once loved to do. When structure and leadership do not understand our field, they often put us in boxes and do not recognize that if we were able to hire better for our weaknesses and free up our strengths, the university would ascend. And, we would feel like we are making greater contributions. And there are trends. Five years ago, everyone wanted a leader who was a marketer, but who could sometimes be a spokesperson. Today, they want crisis managers who also market. What they really need are strategists who balance the crisis with the solid reputation-building activities that move universities forward. What they need tomorrow is to be determined, but sure betting it will be digital communicators who write quickly and nimbly for all media and all audiences. I have one client who was ideally able to etch her strengths into her own position and to build a team around her weaknesses. She is highly respected. Will probably never leave her institution. Has an outstanding brand campaign. And has a spokesperson on her team (not her) who everyone wants to hire. She hires for individual’s strengths and she has the support of her president to do so. And, she is the only vice president I know who is not on the slide to burnout. Kudos to her and to her leadership team.

This week’s writing may feel a little achy, but it reflects where I am in my consulting life. I am working right now with three outstanding leaders who are experiencing burnout, fatigue and self doubt because of multiple factors mentioned here (or perhaps all of them.) It is a hard time to be a communicator, and we find our greatest solace in the comfort of others from the profession. I wish I could buy you all a glass of wine and celebrate the good work you are doing in spite of the challenges. But since I cannot, imagine me holding a big glass of Oregon Pinot in the air and toasting your hard work and contributions. Here. Here.​


Life Without Gravity

Copyright © Luanne Lawrence  |  All Rights Reserved

A blog chronicling the up's and down's, trials and tribulations, fear and happiness of moving your life from the expected 9-to-5 job to a life of consulting. While it is a big and often scary decision, it is a time of discovery, rejuvenation and introspection that will help you remember who you are and who you were supposed to be. It's a wonderful journey.

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