The Courage to Be Heard

Having a seat at the leadership table and letting go of the notion that you’re for everybody.

A Conversation with Terry Flannery | Portrait by Noah Willman


Dr. Teresa (Terry) Flannery is currently the chief operating officer and executive vice president at CASE. Prior to her new role, she led the incredibly effective “Wonk” campaign at American University and the popular “Fear the Turtle” campaign at the University of Maryland. In 2021, she published How to Market a University, a definitive guide to higher education marketing. In a conversation with 2communiqué’s Creative Director Kelly McMurray, she talks about the origin of in-house marketing teams in higher education, why schools should be courageous, and considering head and heart when developing a marketing strategy.

Kelly McMurray: I want to start by discussing institutional strategy, including brand strategy. One of the things that I feel can happen for schools is that they will come up with a campaign, and it might not be led by an institutional strategy, or there can be sort of a confusion that a brand campaign is not the institutional brand—the difference between the campaign and the actual institution brands. I’d just love to have you touch on that, from your experience, because your case studies of “Wonk” (American University) and “Fear the Turtle” (University of Maryland) so beautifully lay out the difference between the two.

Terry Flannery: Thank you. I appreciate that. I think when it comes to brand strategies and brand expressions that aren’t tightly coupled with institutional strategy, they often have, at their root, a misunderstanding of the purpose of marketing, right? So, marketing is primarily about promotion, one of the four P’s, and if you’ve neglected the other elements of marketing strategy, you’re really missing the point. So, if you truly are going to affect the value of your institution through distinctive positioning and choices relative to competitors in the same market environment for your stakeholders, then you’ve got to make sure that that kind of thinking is reflected in the institutional strategy and that you’re riffing off of that. 

One of the things we’ve seen (there are examples in the book) is that there are more institutions, and especially more presidents, who decided to handle their heir institutional strategy and brand strategy in tandem, which I think is terrific. It gives the opportunity for any research that’s going to be done to drive both this strategic plan and the brand strategy to be done in concert, which is always really useful. And it keeps you tightly connected, the identity of the institution tightly connected, to the ways that are going to be reinforced and build value for the institution. That’s all the conceptual stuff. When you see brand strategies that are a little loosey goosey, they haven’t been tied—the expression itself hasn’t been tied—to good brand strategy and institutional strategy.

Reporting to the Top

KM: Right. One of the things you also talk about is that the marketing communications team reports directly to the president, which I found refreshing. At the fall 2022 AMA Symposium on Higher Education, I was with a group of people in a brand roundtable, and I asked the question, How many people here in the marketing office report directly to the president’s office? And it was surprisingly over 50 percent. [In your book], you talk about the role of the CMO needing to be on the executive team. I totally agree with that. Can you talk a little bit more about that and why that’s important?

TF: There’s research that’s been done by Angela Polec, who is the vice president and CMO at LaSalle University. She did her dissertation on … CMOs at institutions where they were succeeding and thriving. One of the things she found is that in terms of the formal power that’s conveyed—there’s informal and formal versions of power that helped to create success for the chief marketing officer—and in the category of formal power structure, reporting to the president or chancellor and being on the executive team are two ways that signal the importance of that function as a strategic function that contributes to the decision making of the institution across the board, not just in the area of communications with stakeholders. So, it’s a really important ingredient to success.

The first part of your question was related to the number, the frequency with which you’ve seen that recently. There’s a CMO study that SimpsonScarborough has done nearly annually, and in the most recent version that was completed, December of last year, they found that 73 percent of the chief marketing officers of institutions now report to their president or chancellor, and 60 percent of those also have a seat at the executive table. So, not a complete, not a perfect parallel for those two things, but pretty close. You’re really seeing the recognition of this as a strategic function for the institution, which is great. That’s exactly where it should be.

KM: That’s a much higher number than I would think. My experience in higher ed is that if you brought up the “M” word, it was bad. Since then, I think people are embracing “brand,” and now I think that word gets thrown around a little bit too much. They might be under advancement, or in another department, and then you’re influenced by what that department is trying to achieve [when creating messaging].

TF: Yeah, I think one of my best book whisperer friends and collaborators on the master course related to the book has been Binti Harvey, Vice President at Scripps College, and she makes the point that structure isn’t really the solution to this problem. It can be an obstacle, but structure doesn’t have to be the way that you achieve a strategic level of functioning; you really need to think about what is the best way to do it at your institution. The structure might vary. Leadership, however, is essential.

While some institutions have marketing and branding embedded in their advancement function, others have it in enrollment. Still others have it separately. Really, it’s about the person who’s in the lead role having the support of the principal, the president, a reflection of the understanding of the function, and then some really great transformational leadership to achieve the kind of relationships you need with colleagues, regardless of your structure to make it work.

KM: So true. Higher ed as a whole is very siloed. People have their nut—it’s like “I’m in the alumni office. I’m in advancement. I’m in communications”—but you’re really serving the same institution, right? So, moving the communications role up makes so much sense, because then that person can strategically look at the institutional priorities, the different key stakeholders and audiences, and how to message out to those different people without being heavily influenced by one or the other.

TF: I think the culture of the academy is developed and influenced, including our structures, by the role of faculty. And they have individual disciplines, so you have this natural siloing by discipline and profession that’s hard to overcome.

If you can get people to see that the process of an enterprisewide marketing strategy can be a way to unify the campus, a lot of people see the value in cultivating a collective sense of identity and realize that that can leverage and promote things that individual units are doing. If you’re working together, you can create a sense that that’s an opportunity to gain rather than to lose—versus autonomy. Then you can get a little further, but that’s pretty hard sometimes.

KM: You’ve got to move people forward. For the 20 to 30 percent that don’t have that sort of role in executive leadership and a pipeline to the president or chancellor, how can they get there? If you’re the CMO, reporting to the VP of advancement, I can imagine a hard discussion to say, “Hey, you know, I don’t really want to report to you anymore.” How do you do that without having a job change? I can see it as when you’re going into a new position, that’s something that you negotiate. What about the people that are already, they’re in it?

TF: I think you have to start with where you are. And think about what would advance the agenda—what would be the next step that would advance the agenda? And you’d be looking for ways to create more enterprisewide influence, even though you’re embedded in one part of the institution. I know it’s harder, but one of the ways to do that is through research. If you can create a shared sense of market research that would help the entire organization and might be funded by advancement, if that’s where your investment would really benefit other parts of the institution, find a way to have a steering group that leads that together, and use the investment. You know, maybe there are foundation funds or private funds that would fund some research. You really need to see where you are with key stakeholders in terms of their perceptions, their level of support and loyalty, that kind of thing. That would help you prioritize a brand strategy but would benefit every part of the institution that needs that kind of feedback, and then have the group steer the work so that they collectively feel buy-in. Then that would lead to, well, these findings tell us that the things we need to do next are X, Y, and Z. Who wants to be involved in that?

At the University of Maryland, we had a steering committee that guided the research, guided development of visual identity as some of the first things we did, and eventually led to development of brand strategy. And there were some pretty big and influential units. And these are not uncommon. The Continuing Education division and the business school were kind of hanging back and initially were like, “No, thanks. We’re good. We’ve got our own thing.” The deans and the volunteers and the faculty felt like they didn’t need to be a part of anything. And we just said, “We’re just going to build something good.” And if you want in later, all to the good, and they did eventually. But sometimes it takes going with the willing.

KM: That makes a lot of sense.

TF: There’s the whole notion of retail politics that my former president at American really instilled in me: Before you ever ask another leader on the campus to do something for you, go visit with them when you first arrive in the role and say, “What are your goals? And how can I help you?” Deliver on that, and you’ll be building a sense of trust. And then you’ll also get some reciprocation, which is what retail politics is all about.

Be Courageous

KM: There was a piece that I have to quote from your book, because I thought this was so great in thinking about the differentiation that you talk about: “It’s not the nature of the culture of academics to elevate a few strong choices here. Again, the inclination to be comprehensive and detailed describing all aspects of the institution should be resisted. Practical limits only allow few ideas to come through and be memorable and should warrant courageous actions.” I love that.

I think about when you go to college, that’s a time in your life you are taking risks. Yet when we get into communications for institutions and higher ed, there seems to be this lack of willingness to take risks and to differentiate and put yourself out there.

I spoke with Megan Monahan from Kenyon, and I think they’ve done a brilliant job, where they worked with SimpsonScarborough and they really understood their brand pillars. They’re putting it forward, and it’s really successful. They’re saying, “If you’re coming here, you’re coming here to go to Kenyon.”

Do you feel like that sort of confidence needs to happen for higher ed or it’s beginning to happen? My son, currently a senior in high school, is getting all this information, and everything kind of feels the same. Where are the schools that are taking the risk to really understand what makes them unique?

TF: Absolutely. I think if you took that gathering of information that your son is getting and laid it out and said, you know, where could we replace the name of the institution, they could all be interchangeable. That’s proof that it is a waste of resources.

But doing the opposite requires fighting an instinct that’s embedded in the culture of the academy. My colleague Scott Bass, who was the provost at American, talked a lot about isomorphism. And that’s the inclination to emulate others, to be more like those we admire. If you think about how faculty and academic leaders are trained, they grow up with peer review, right? So, when you listen to your academic leaders, they’re probably talking about the institution in terms of, “And we’re as competitive as X, Y, and Z in this area,” you know, they’re making comparisons that say we’re similar rather than we’re distinct. It takes more courage, which that quote is about, to really stand out.

That’s what’s going to make a difference in the investment returning real value, and it requires letting go of the notion that you’re for everybody. Think about your key audiences and what you need to achieve. You need to zero in like a laser on who you are seeking to engage and why your offer is better than any other offer out there—why it’s distinct and better, comparatively, than your competitor set for that group of students or alumni donors, whatever the audience is.

KM: Right. Right, and be okay that you’re not for everybody.

TF: Absolutely. But that’s where the courage comes in.

KM: It’s interesting, you touched on a feeling that I have about all these postcards that keep showing up. I’m not looking at them, and my son’s not looking at them. As someone who comes from an editorial background and has moved into working on alumni magazines, what’s fascinating to me is that you’re creating a publication for an existing community. There’s a lot of opportunity for engagement in many different ways for social and digital. But there seems to be less investment in alumni communications and the value of maintaining that relationship. Yet I get all this stuff in the mail, and I think about all the investment and budget that goes into enrollment communications.

Where’s the through line? There’s the prospective student—you talk in the conclusion of your book about the huge importance of engaging the existing student and that retention—and that student then becomes an alum, and that alum then might become a donor. I heard a story from Jay Dillon [at] UC Berkeley about somebody who just gave a million dollars and had started as a $10 donor. And so I’m wondering about that through line that supports the institution as a whole—schools having the enrollment cliff and looking to those alumni as ambassadors as a really important segment to engage with, not in just a let’s have your money way, but let’s just keep engaged with you.

TF: At CASE, we see the role of alumni relations and  institutional offerings for alumni have dramatically changed. We’re not the place anymore where people come to connect with other alumni through an alumni directory or, you know, things that are old-school ways, and most of our events were embedded in that kind of assumption, and that’s changing a lot in terms of what alumni see as value. Going back to the point about the entire customer journey, the real opportunity is to use our data and our brand strategy to create a lifetime relationship with our institutions. And people are naturally poised just to embrace this, because think about how people label their cars, their laptops, their clothes, their bodies, their babies with their school identification—this is one of those things that you’ve made a significant financial investment, and you are inclined to stay connected over a lifetime, if we provided real value in ways that made sense. And so if you could think about the journey from the point of first contact as a prospective student all the way through currently enrolled students to the point at which they become engaged alumni, then you’re thinking more about the value of those investments in ways that deepen the relationship over time and create value for the institution and the alum all the way along your way, right? That’s the ideal state you want to be in.

CASE is doing some really interesting work in terms of measuring. We’re in a fourth year of alumni engagement metrics that gather data about how you’re engaging your alums, and then compare it to similar institutions. There are four modes of engagement: Communication, Experiential, Volunteer and Philanthropy.  Engagement through communication is related to all the other forms. It’s one of the easiest to engage. And to do it well, in ways that are meaningful, will help influence the other things you’re seeking to do in the advancement space.

KM: Absolutely. So when you think about the student engagement, that to me is the piece that maybe gets a little bit lost in that through line. What can schools do to kind of connect those two pieces of the perspective to the alumni?

TF: If you had an enterprise CRM at your institution that was being used to engage with current students, not just prospects, and not just alumni, but with current students, then you could start to see the ways that they’re engaged with the institution, while they’re students, which would be great information when you want to engage them afterward, right? Because you can start to segment them into different audiences by different interests. So that’s one piece. I think you also want to be able to better understand your student experience over the course of the time that someone is with you in a learning environment in a learning experience, whether that’s a four-year degree, a two-year degree, more lifelong learning, whatever it is, and then use that to refine your brand strategy. So the experience is reflecting your brand strategy and your brand strategy is underscoring decisions you make about the student experience. And there’s more work to do with our student affairs colleagues in that regard, with faculty in that regard. But, boy, there’s a lot of power in the data if you can begin to establish a CRM that’s communicating with and engaging with your currently enrolled students.

KM: You can absolutely see that informing the brand. If you recruit the better fit coming in, then you have better retention, and then hopefully a better experience. That goes to the importance, then, of that CMO, and you refer to at the end of your book, as you know, moving into the CX of the experience officer, of being on the executive level of really working to understand the institutional strategy and how that can be implemented. So, you have that through line, you break down those silos.

TF: Exactly. I got a chance to meet the CXO at the Cleveland Clinic when I was at American University, and we were trying to reimagine the student experience. We also benchmarked and visited with Wegmans, and the environments had really important lessons. The CXO role and opportunity at Cleveland Clinic made a huge difference in both strategy and training of all of their employees, from the guy in the parking lot to the most experienced surgeon, to care about the patient experience and to do so through tools like the use of empathy. They trained every staff member—40,000 staff members—at Cleveland Clinic to use empathy, which not only helped them to be more efficient in the use of their time, but to better identify, respond to, and acknowledge the needs of their patients, and then to address them effectively. Their patient satisfaction scores went up tremendously, which was a huge requirement in order to receive Medicare reimbursements at the highest level. It was a direct financial incentive to do something that was a brand strategy at its root, and it was all led by the chief experience officer.

The Wegmans lesson, interestingly, was about the importance of your employees. Whether it’s cause or effect they don’t say, but they say great customer experiences are directly related to great employee experiences. They look to delight and satisfy their employees because they know that employee satisfaction is strongly related to customer satisfaction. So there are two important lessons from those two examples about how you can develop a greater brand loyalty for your current students.

KM: That makes a lot of sense. I love shopping at Trader Joe’s because the people are so nice, whereas when I go to the local grocery store, it’s not as pleasant an experience. So, it’s not what I want to do.

I think from my own experience, because I’ve been going on college tours with my son, that when we went on tours, it impacted his interest in the school. We went to two very different schools, yet the closing statement from the two tour guides was almost identical. That impacted his feelings about the authenticity of the experience. Whereas when we were at American and UMD, they were really honest. The tour guide had her canned things, but then her closing of why she chose the school was really authentic. You could feel that they knew the important things to talk about. But then also they’re talking to a peer. And they’ve got to have that peer trust them.

TF: Authenticity is really important, not just for the tour guides on the ground but throughout the organization—are you delivering on what you promised? And is what you promised the reality of what the experience is? Right?

The Head and the Heart

KM: You talk a lot in your book about data. How do we bring together data and storytelling, because from my point of view, it’s all about story, it’s all about engaging people through stories. So how do we bring the data and the story together?

TF: The head and the heart?

KM: Right.

TF: I think data helps you center your message around strategic requirements. When we were developing the brand strategy at American, we immersed the creative team in all of the market research we did and the resulting findings. Before they ever looked at what else is out there in the environment, before they ever started brainstorming, they started from, What do we need to achieve? What does the data tell us? What do the findings tell us that we need to achieve with our brand strategy? Who are the most important audiences? What’s the current perception of us? What do we need to address to shift their perception to one that’s more favorable, and one that makes them want to create greater consideration or affinity? That was the set of requirements from which you could then think about storytelling that’s compelling and authentic.

The creative and the data strategy go hand in hand, and they’re best when they work together.

KM: I couldn’t agree more. It’s nice to start from that lens. You don’t want to start from looking at what’s already been done, because then you’re just gonna iterate on something that already existed. How are you going to differentiate, because you want to look at your competitors, but you don’t want to do what they do.

TF: You want blue ocean space.

Dr. Teresa (Terry) Flannery, Ph.D., is a higher-ed leader, author, and innovator. She is currently the executive vice president and chief operating officer at CASE and author of the book How to Market a University. Previously, she was the vice president for communication at American University and AVP, marketing and communications, at the University of Maryland, where she was instrumental in launching two successful campaigns, “Wonk” and “Fear the Turtle,” respectively.

Noah Willman is a photographer based in Washington, D.C. His clients include AARP, Fortune, Golf Digest, Harvard Business Review, Men’s Journal, MIT Tech Review, NYT Co., Salvation Army, Scholastic, Variety, Washingtonian, The Wall Street Journal, and the World Bank Group.