Tuesday, September 17, 2013

And now for the “Really Big Show….” (aka the Three Ring Circus!)

This post is brought to you from a colleague of ours who has some concerns and asked to have this posted.--Corday

Just what you’ve been waiting for, ladies and gentlemen! A big production! The “Evening with Smokey” looks like a great scholarship and fundraising event for our students and for the University. Nothing raises the scholarly and academic profile of the institution like a trip down memory lane of the “golden oldies,” does it? Unless you’ve eliminated anyone and everyone who has any institutional memory of the place but I digress….

 As we all know, CSU has a “communication” problem…. And the recently anointed (and newly populated and re-populated) Office of Marketing and Communications (OMC) has been up and running now for several years under the new regime. Or is it the Department of Integrated Marketing Communications? or Public Relations and Communications? or the Office of Publications? If one looks on the current OMC website, one is not really sure what the old “Office of Public Affairs” has become. I’m sure the new inhabitants will know….

In any case, whoever is functioning as the leader (in an interim capacity no doubt given all of the turnover this office has had the last few years) they will know how to advertise the “big event!” You would think they have things down by now, especially after the giant four story tall “starving child” poster that took the South Loop by storm last year communicating “something” about CSU. And who could forget the impressive “You Greater” campaign (otherwise known as the “HLC marketing job”) that has really taken off! Doesn’t everyone have a green CSU pen by now? Given these experiences, let us see how well we’re doing marketing what is best about CSU for the “big event!” A little ad campaign for a fundraising event should be no problem for our experienced marketing team, right?

Amidst the hustle and bustle of the first weeks of class, it is likely only a few folks noticed the first electronic poster emailed to the entire University community. Of course, it was followed a day later with a revised version containing some new information. Clearly, the branding geniuses under the leadership of Sabrina Land would not have forgotten to tell folks where the event was being held? Isn’t the title of the University enough? It’s on campus somewhere, right? Besides we’re just trying to pump out a little poster for the big event to generate a little “buzz” as the new year begins, right? Good thing they didn’t spend any money on hard copies, eh? or did they? I guess we’ll never know. They bury mistakes around here… Happily, the revised electronic version sent out a day later indicates clearly the day, time, and location of the event. Still unclear however, is the difference between “premium” and “VIP” floor tickets, select and general seating, and what attire one should wear to a “strolling supper reception.” Of course, foolish me! With three drinks per ticket and an open bar, it will become clear enough I’m sure. Just follow the crowd! That is until event security doesn’t let you into the “VIP” area like some concert bouncer…

While I believe CSU can indeed put on a first class event that represents the University community well, our first electronic poster attempt also illustrates how public perception of ineptitude at CSU may be correct and how “on-the-job training” continues unabated in the marketing department. Let us count the ways: when looking at the first poster, one has no idea where the event is to be held. There is no location given beyond “CSU” and the date. Should I wear a low cut dress? Or a ball gown? Will the event be held in a gym? The new Library? or the old Robinson building? As we look closer, let’s say I am interested in the fundraiser dinner and then a little entertainment afterwards. But the choices are all so confusing. Should I get “select seating?” or the premium package? And what’s the difference? Is the cash bar included or does that cost extra for a different “package?” Such a dizzying array of choices…. one drink or two? maybe three? Should I get the ticket package that contains dinner and the show? Or can I just go to the really big show and skip the dinner? Is a donation required for one or both events? By the way, are there one or two events? What do you expect when it appears as if so many of the folks who have prepared these announcements seem never to have produced anything more than a series of “cut and paste” jobs by attaching a corporate logo and hoping for the best prior to their CSU employment. For those of us who have planned campus wide events at CSU over the years, there used to be a policy manual. Materials were proofread by people who looked for such information before it was distributed.

As should be obvious by now, the need for a second announcement was caught quickly by our crack marketing team. The revised poster comes out a day later listing the location and mailing address of the university as well as a phone number one may call if you wished to find out more information. But for some of us, the damage is clear and the poster fiasco has already communicated “ineptitude.” Many of the questions I asked above still remain unanswered by the revised advertisement. The whole fiasco illustrates how poorly CSU communicates its central ideas and how little information is really contained in the glitzy, glossy brochures being produced by the Office of “Whatever Title You Wish to Insert Here” these days. Select seating, premier packages, “strolling receptions” and a bunch of other nice sounding but vacuous distinctions that seem to make the “big event” appear really special are foregrounded while critical information like location and contact information are absent or contained in “supplementary communication.” It’s as if to say, “just call us and we’ll tell you which category of tickets you’re eligible for…”

So now we have arrived at the main issue: if this is how one “markets” a major event at CSU, how much greater and more significant would the failures of communication be if the same folks who created the poster fiasco claimed to know how to “brand” a university? And what if the folks making decisions in the “Office of Whatever” are without any training or experience marketing in an academic setting?  Do any of the members of the OMC possess experience creating the “branding” or institutional identity of a major state University? If not, the result might be to produce much of the same kind of confusion witnessed in the poster fiasco university-wide. For example, how do we fix financial aid? Where do we set up information tables to reach the most number of students?  which classes do we cut or let go? do our new academic advisors help or hinder our students? are they properly trained or prepared? and which candidate is the “best fit” for the position we just advertised? All of these “academic” concerns require the same kind of sensitivity, experience, and willingness to learn from others as writing good copy about the “big event.” Without such experience and sensitivity (and with apologies to Smokey Robinson), the big event looks like it risks becoming a three ring circus despite the nice color glossy “campaign materials.” Given the weighty structural issues that face our little university, the “poster debacle” will probably be little more than a minor distraction and no one will care. Besides… how alike is the activity of creating an advertisement and running a university? 

 Perhaps we are communicating more than we think….

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