Friday, November 13, 2009

Strategic Communications a Failed Strategy

November 13, 2009, 6:25 a.m.

Actions Speak Louder
(brought to you by*)

There is a kind of cruel irony that a university ends up harming the very public image it seeks to improve by the way it goes about hiring yet another vice president -- the one who will bear the title and responsibility for its "strategic communications." Emily Busse, "Finalists for open VP position visit campus this week," Daily Iowan, November 9, 2009. More on this higher education equivalent of "we had to destroy the village in order to save it" in just a moment . . .
. . . but first, here are links to earlier entries that support and relate to today's discussion, along with some of the other hot topics from the past week or so that are now getting the most direct hits, among which may be the entries you are looking for:

UIHC, Regents and UI -- Budget Decisions Have Been Negative Communications:

Executives trip to Disney World: "Mickey Mouse Patient Satisfaction; UIHC's Troubles: Is Orlando the Answer?" November 8, 2009

"Contributions from patients" proposal: "UIHC: 'Sick Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'; A Check-In and a Check," October 31, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with numerous updates through November 4, links to additional, related material -- and now with over 30 of the Press-Citizen readers' comments on B.A. Morelli's stories)

"TARP Lessons for Iowa's Budget Cutters; Barofsky: 'Anger, cynicism and distrust [an] unnecessary cost of TARP,'" October 23, 2009

"How Many Administrators Does It Take? Administrators are Multiplying & Sucking Us Dry," July 16, 2009

"A University's Strategic Communication; A Modest Proposal to the Regents' University Presidents," October 7, 2009

"Iowa's Budget Cuts and the University; Economic Collapse Tests Moral Values," October 9, 2009.

"How to Cut Iowa's Budget; Fairness, Justice and Leadership by Example," October 15, 2009.

"UI Budget: Waivers Wave Goodbye to Savings; Consistency, Hobgoblins and Waivers," October 19, 2009

"Cutting Slack, Cutting Budgets; Regents, University Presidents, Deserve Some Thanks and Credit," October 30, 2009, 8:30 a.m. (with links to prior, related blog entries)

UI, Other -- Spence break-in grand jury proceedings: "UI Spence Break-In: Gazette Scoop Illustrates Issues," October 27, 2009

School boundaries, school boards, and the ICCSD. "Drawing School Boundaries: Clarity vs. Chaos," November 11, 2009, and "School Board Election: Now Work Begins; It's Swisher, Dorau, Cooper; Old Board 'Starting Off Backing Up' With Consultant and Tough Decisions," September 9, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with its links to 11 prior and related blog entries including, for example, "School Boundaries Consultant Folly; Tough Boundary Questions Are for Board, Not Consultants or Superintendent, Plus: What Consultant Could Do," and "Cluster Schools: Potential for IC District?")

Nicholas Johnson, "School Board Has Work to Do," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 2, 2009 (and reproduced in blog)

"Boundaries: Only Board Can Do Board's Job; Drawing School Boundaries Made Easy," November 2, 2009
"Huh?" asks The Gazette -- a sort of family newspaper translation of "WTF?" "[T]he UI is interviewing finalists for a newly created position as vice president of strategic communication. This despite a system-wide hiring freeze and after the UI cut 40 teaching assistant positions earlier this year. It comes as leaders discuss possible student surcharges, tuition increases and cuts in benefits to existing staff. Huh?" Editorial, "Spending that could wait," November 12, 2009, p. A4.

Even the student paper's editorial writers at The Daily Iowan can see the problems with this idea that seem to have eluded the adults who run their institution. Editorial, "Due to budgetary woes, PR position should remain unfilled," November 11, 2009 ("It’s asinine to hire a PR man or woman at the same time we’re weighing a tuition increase and surcharge. These budgetary issues require our direct and immediate attention before we address our public-relations department. President Sally Mason and other officials have spoken of the need for sacrifice, yet their hypocrisy is apparent when they’re concurrently looking to fill a public-relations position.").

If there is any profession, any group of individuals, who ought to understand the need for good public relations and media relations, it would be the reporters and editors of newspapers. Moreover, when it comes to the University of Iowa, both papers could be characterized as much more in the nature of cheerleaders than rock throwers. And so, when they are editorializing against the creation of this position -- at least now -- one can assume they are attempting to be helpful; that they really do think it is a move not in the University's best interests. I agree -- and with a similar motivation.

There are at least three issues here. One is the absolute dollars. I have no idea what the total budget for this position would be: the VP's salary, benefit package, expense account -- and then assistants, support staff, travel, office, supplies, and so forth. But I assume that it would total something in excess of $300,000, and maybe much more than that. So the money is not insignificant in a time of cutbacks.

Second, there is the priority setting. Might there be some benefit to the institution from a VP for strategic communication? Perhaps. Although it's always seemed to me that strategic communications is something that simply must come from the CEO (or in this case, university president); it's not something that can be farmed out to a consultant, or delegated to an employee. But that's not really the issue. It is not enough to say that there would be some benefit from this expensive VP position. There would be some benefit from a German Department, too, and that's been abolished. The issue is opportunity cost; the issue is relative benefit from the VP compared with the benefits that would come from other expenditures.

As the DI editorial, above, notes, "TA cuts, potential tuition hikes, and … a new public-relations hiring? . . . The position has been vacant for the last eight years, and . . . should stay that way. . . . [F]illing it would not be prudent or fiscally responsible, given the economic climate and the university’s budget reductions. In times likes these, UI officials need to prioritize."

Third, absolute dollars and a mistaken sense of priorities aside, there is the fact that this public relations move has already been another public relations disaster. Editorial writers are not the only ones criticizing the idea. Those who put utilize the newspapers' invitation to submit online comments about their stories are decidedly lacking in enthusiasm for this hire as well.

The University's public relations problems this past month have not had to do with a lack of creativity and writing ability on the part of those who prepare its news releases. It's had to do with the decisions and oversight of its administrators.

The UIHC decides it's going to stop giving patients a dollar-and-a-quarter to cover their parking expenses, and at the same time turns around and hits them up for donations to the UI Foundation on UIHC's behalf the moment they check in at a clinic. The next thing that needs to be defended is their administrators' decision to take a long weekend at Disney World. Meanwhile, it turns out they spent $60 million on a computer system that seems to have a few bugs in it (for which they announce the creation of yet one more administrator), and the Athletic Department is going ahead with a $43 million building project -- either sum alone nearly enough to cover the combined total of all the cuts required in all three Regents' universities budgets. See, e.g., a couple of the stories linked above, "Mickey Mouse Patient Satisfaction; UIHC's Troubles: Is Orlando the Answer?" November 8, 2009, and "UIHC: 'Sick Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'; A Check-In and a Check," October 31, 2009, 7:00 a.m. (with numerous updates through November 4, links to additional, related material -- and now with over 30 of the Press-Citizen readers' comments on B.A. Morelli's stories).

The Gazette and Daily Iowan are right to editorialize about the cost of yet one more UI vice president. But that is, in some ways, the least of the problems created by one more high-priced hire in these times.

I have often returned to the theme -- as in the first eight blog entries linked from the top of today's entry -- that the best "strategic communication" from the University at this time of budget cutting and tuition raising is "fairness, justice and equity." We need to communicate that our wealthiest and most powerful are taking more than their fair share of the pain, not less; that we are not transforming their "wants" into "needs" while treating others' "needs" as "superfluous;" that we are not living on an Iowa Animal Farm in which "some are more equal than others."

In the course of doing so I've noted the lessons provided for us by "the Department of the Treasury's Special Inspector General, Neil Barofsky, [who] says the Treasury's handling of the TARP program . . . 'have contributed to damage the credibility of the program and of the government itself, and [that] the anger, cynicism and distrust created must be chalked up as one of the substantial, albeit unnecessary, costs of TARP.'" "TARP Lessons for Iowa's Budget Cutters; Barofsky: 'Anger, cynicism and distrust [an] unnecessary cost of TARP,'" October 23, 2009.

The most significant word in that quote? "Unnecessary." The public's "anger, cynicism and distrust" is not a necessary consequence from Iowa's, and the UI's, budget cutting. As the comic strip character Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy and he is us." [Graphic credit: Wikipedia.] It is we, not the woozle, that has been making the tracks around Winnie the Pooh's barn. We who have caused those gunshot wounds in our feet. To the extent we have "strategic communications" problems at this time, it turns out that most of them are of our own making.

Damage control is a part of the responsibility of publicists. And it's important. But it's not "strategic communications."

It's our actions that are speaking louder than any words from an additional high-priced UI VP ever could.
* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source, even if I have to embed it myself. -- Nicholas Johnson
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Anonymous said...

"Huh?" asks The Gazette -- a sort of family newspaper translation of "WTF?" - Classic line worth quoting. This blog is a spot-on analysis of the University's decision to fill that position.

Anonymous said...

The U of Iowa, and the UIHC are only superficially an academic institution. Led by the UIHC, the Univ of Iowa is a corporation. The bottom line is the new measure of success, and adherence to the corporate line is the standard of behavior. Enough examples exist to prove this point.

Each of these problems noted in the post, make sense when examined in light of the corporate goals.

The UIHC Inc. will seek to maximize profits, changing patients into customers, while giving a bogus flirtation with actual patient care (and one can see the transition with the ever changing themes form the UIHC corporate offices; If Coke is the Real Thing, the UIHC is World Class).

Given that UIHC Inc, and U of Iowa Corp is the new standard, it makes sense to hire astute PR professionals. Image is every thing to the corporation. Marketing becomes more important that assuring the clients -- er students -- have adequate teachers (in fact the students become one more client to be exploited for tuition or credit card schemes).

It then follows that fund raising trumps ethics; that improving the football stadium trumps improving libraries, and that the corporation must be protected above all, and at the expense of the individual. The bureaucratic and politic animals in the system will rule far more than academic considerations or common sense will prevail.

Expecting that the U of Iowa Corp will act in the interest of the students, the patients, or the tax payers is wrong; the U of Iowa Corp will behave as any large corporation will, promoting image ahead of substance. The U of Iowa Corp will not be promoting academic rigor, educational freedom, and honest academic achievement. It will promote the fastidious adherence to University (corporate) rule and procedure, the worship of profit (grant or income or tuition), and the suppression of individuality.

Once that realization is made, the logic and the motivation for these behaviors falls into place.

One expects Bernie Madoff could be an appropriate Vice Presidential candidate at some level.

Anonymous said...

Look at the comments on the DI page. It is obvious that the Univ of Iowa Corp is rolling on. Most of the comments focus on how a corporation needs good PR. How a position like PR director is cost effective.

Did the academics all die over night to be replaced by the business majors en masse?

In the world of business ethics, it proly is more cost effective to hire a PR professional, than to hire a TA or a librarian.

Shakes head...if this is really the new wave of academic higher education, let's just remove the veneer, and the sooner the better.

Anonymous said...

Not that I think it is a good idea to fill this position at this time, I don't think it is actually a new position, just one that hadn't been filled in 8 years (Skorton decided not to fill it in a previous budget crisis)

Anonymous said...

Fact: The German department has not been abolished.

Fact: The communications VP position was assigned to Skorton by Mary Sue Coleman when Ann Rhodes left that position and when Skorton was research VP--for several years, he served in both VP positions. When Skorton became president, he left the position open.

paul said...

Hi Nick. I guess I don't agree with your view that 'strategic communications is something that simply must come from the CEO (or in this case, university president); it's not something that can be farmed out to a consultant, or delegated to an employee.'
That's because CEOs have a lot on their plate, and giving sufficient time to something as important and complex as guiding the university's overall communications strategy is more than a full-time job. And this job requires much more than 'an employee' can bring to it: Directing the communications function for a large organization (that doubtless employs many other communicators within its various schools and departments)requires the skills of someone with years of experience communicating in varying contexts in the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Part of the university's mission is to share its knowledge with the public, and that's what such a position is intended to do.

Nick said...

Notice Regarding Advertising: This blog runs an open comments section. All comments related to blog entries have (so far) remained posted, regardless of how critical. Although I would prefer that those posting comments identify themselves, anonymous comments are also accepted.

The only limitation is that advertising posing as comments will be removed. That is why one or more of the comments posted on this blog entry, containing links to businesses, have been deleted.
-- Nick