Richard Edelman, one of the most prominent public relations leaders around these days, delivered a speech the other day that outlines a fundamental shift in the way PR and marketing could work together. The ideas he expressed in his talk could also have profound implications for the way marketing and communications work in higher education.
While Edelman’s speech focused on the role of PR agencies such as his own, there are components of his speech that anyone working in marketing, PR or communications, in any sector, ought to consider.
He outlines “four simultaneous revolutions” in human-institution interactions that require a tremendous shift in how we operate as marketers and suggests “a revolution in the marketer’s mindset” is needed for future success. “To be blunt,” Edelman says, “we need to reinvent marketing to better serve consumers. We are now convinced that there needs to be a new commitment by marketers to truth, experience and authenticity.”
And those four simultaneous revolutions? You’ve heard about each of these before, but they’re worth looking at again in the context of our business as higher ed marketers. Here they are, with my take on potential implications for the higher education sector:
1. A widening trust gap
Since the 2008 recession, trust in institutions — business, government, the media, etc. — has suffered. Edelman points to a widening gap between elites and the general public when it comes to how much these two groups trust institutions. The elites place more trust in these institutions than the masses. Nowhere has this trust gap played out more than in our presidential election campaign.
“This is one explanation for the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders,” says Edelman. “The classic pyramid of influence is flipped on its head, with influence now resting with the mass population even as power remains with the elites.”
As a result, “The government leader and CEO are being supplanted by a ‘person like me’ as one of the most credible sources of information. Brands must recognize that the predominant axis of communications is now horizontal (peer-to-peer), not vertical (talk at) — that worked only in an era of belief.”
Implications for higher education. This idea of a trust gap also helps to put into context the spread of protests on college campuses last fall related to racial tension and other issues. The elites of higher education — college presidents and, by extension, the administration — as students banded together to protest social injustice. Beyond the protests, there are trust gaps between faculty and “the administration” (what one author calls “administrative imperialism”) on how the academy should be governed and managed, and there is continuing public skepticism about the value of a college education in an era of rising tuition. How will this shift in the trust equation affect our “official” marketing and communications approaches? How can colleges and universities adopt a horizontal, peer-to-peer approach that will resonate with customers in an era of distrust? Most importantly, how can a university administration take this trust gap into consideration in its planning and execution of plans, and what role should the marketing and communications staff play?
2. Innovation is rapid — perhaps too rapid
Here, Edelman briefly discusses disruption in a variety of sectors, from baby shampoo to music television. While organizations trip all over themselves to show themselves as innovative, their customers want them to slow down a bit. “[B]y a two-to-one margin, consumers feel innovation is moving too quickly,” Edelman says. He adds that, according to recent research by his firm, “two out of three respondents want to be reassured, whereas only one in three want to be inspired.”
Implications for higher education. It’s a rare day when colleges and universities are accused of moving too rapidly on anything. On the contrary, our byzantine bureaucracies and unwieldy processes are more often the target of complaint. But our organizations are facing massive change, and how that change is managed and communicated — within the campus community as well as outside its walls — must be carefully planned and orchestrated. Because poorly handled communication of change — or poor management of change — could further erode trust.
Then there’s the innovation thing. Every college and university wants to be thought of as innovative. But given the insights Edelman shares, perhaps we should think about balancing our desire to portray ourselves as innovative with consumers’ desire for reassurance. This, too, ties back to the issue of trust.
3. Advertising’s perfect storm
Traditional advertising is becoming less effective. Edelman notes that ad-blocking technology is becoming a standard element for many smartphones, consumers are choosing ad-free media such as Netflix and attention spans continue to shrink. “Brands need to recognize the imperative of experimenting with new forms of paid media, such as Unilever’s radio station in India for the mobile phone that has four ads per hour,” Edelman says.
Implications for higher education. Ad spending in higher education is minuscule in comparison to the spend of many brands (see item 4 on this post about the state of #highered marketing). That should call for us to be even more careful when considering where to spend our precious ad dollars. How should higher ed experiment with new forms of paid media?
4. The mainstream media implosion
Here, Edelman introduces a concept he calls “the Era of Expression” — a phrase he includes in his speech title — “in which consumer becomes content creator.” Media consumption habits have shifted to “search, TV and social,” while newspapers and magazines are left behind. People get their news via social media, and usually through the recommendation of their trust networks (see point 1, above). “Search has changed the pecking order of influence, with the winners the newer brands with charged headlines and plentiful video such as Business Insider and Vice. … Brands will need to adjust to a world where the average person needs to see a story five times in different places to achieve belief.”
Implications for higher education. How do we reorient our traditional media relations efforts in an era of media implosion? I offer a few suggestions in some previous posts (see Media relations in a disintermediated world and Thinking like a media organization). I think it comes down to the “revolution in the marketer’s mindset” — or maybe in the PR practitioner’s mindset, or both.
The sixth P
Those are the issues we face. Edelman’s proposed solution may sound familiar to those of us in higher education. It begins with the idea of combining communications and marketing functions — not just for organizational efficiency, but “in pursuit of the big idea.” And that’s where the marketing mindset revolution must begin.
Marketing services must become integral in an organization’s pursuit of the big idea. In Edelman’s words, “brands must not only enable consumers to talk to one another — they should stand for something. So along with Product, Place, Promotion, Price, and Profit, we must add a sixth P to the marketing equation: Purpose. A company or brand must show how its products add value to society.”
And that, my friends — that sixth P, Purpose — is where we in higher education should have an advantage.
In many ways, we are in a greater position to communicate and market our benefits in this Era of Expression than most other sectors. Will we seize the opportunities ahead of us?