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Changes Are Coming to Campus: How Schools Can Message a Major Transition

by Michael Sherry | Higher Education , Public Affairs
July 15, 2022

The higher education landscape is more competitive than ever before, with colleges and universities scrambling to adapt to the shifting preferences- and budgets- of their students. As a result, this is a time of tremendous change on many campuses, with storied institutions announcing or contemplating seismic changes: selling or purchasing new buildings and land, new leaders or management structures, and wholesale reimaginings of program offerings. 

These changes can help position schools for the future, but when messaged poorly they can backfire. Students often worry about how the shift will impact their experience; alumni sometimes fear the traditions of their past are disappearing; donors may hesitate to give to an institution in flux. For this reason, leaders across the higher education industry have hired firms like BG to help guide them through these sensitive periods. Our work in this space has shown us some key lessons for any college or university seeking to manage a major transition:

Spotlight the Positive: Even changes that appear damaging on the surface can have beneficial next-order effects, and zeroing in on those benefits is critical to the rollout of a big announcement. Selling campus assets may provide financial resources to keep beloved programs afloat or ensure scholarships to a new generation of students. Cutting programs may enable the school to better staff core competencies most relevant to the long-term health of the institution. For every change, leaders must draw a clear line between the sometimes painful decision and the long-term benefits it will bring.

Control the Release: Schools cannot control everything about a big announcement, but when managed right they can dictate who knows it and when. Keeping a tight lid on planned changes until they are ready to be public will cut down on rumors and fearmongering, two seemingly inevitable features of college life that will only prime constituencies to expect the worst from the news. Details of major changes should be kept to a close circle of decision-makers and message crafters who can be trusted to stay quiet until the right time, so that the first time most people hear the news they are hearing the facts.

Focus Inward First: It can be tempting for schools that are always hungry for news coverage to “go big” with a large media blitz on the heel of their announcement. And yes, some element of media coverage is an important part of any announcement strategy. But in most cases, the audiences most important to a school- students, alums, and donors- are major consumers of “internal” messaging vehicles like emails, letters, speeches, and private conversations from university leaders. Colleges are like large families, and they often want to hear important news directly from each other, not in the newspaper.

Handling the rollout of a major transition can be a complex endeavor for even the most well-equipped schools. BG maintains robust Higher Education and Public Affairs practices that have guided colleges and universities of all sizes through tremendous shifts in their leadership, operational model, and identity. Contact us to learn more about the ways we have provided advice to schools and how we can leverage that experience to help you.

Get in touch: mike@thebelfortgroup.com or 201-615-2218

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