How to Position Your College’s Presidential Initiative for Success

Big things don’t just happen on their own on a college campus. To accomplish large goals, it helps to work from your school’s most visible platform—have its loudest microphone at your disposal.

That’s why the most important university priorities are typically supported by presidential initiatives—projects used to push forward ambitious, university-wide plans aimed at accomplishing an aspirational goal, creating meaningful change, tackling a fundamental problem or improving a critical deficiency.

Leverage the Reach of Presidential Initiatives

Universities are big places—not just physically. Your school’s footprint also provides a home to big ideas, big concepts, big dreams, big achievements and big accomplishments. And managing this beehive of mental energy and physical activity requires ambitious goal-setting and skillful planning. Moreover, steering this big rig of academic inertia also sometimes requires the ability to manage big change.

That’s not the easiest proposition for any complex organization—much less for a large academic institution with a multitude of diverse stakeholders and decision makers and so many things happening on campus at any given time.

Leveraging the prestige and reach of the office of the university president through presidential initiatives (PIs) helps universities cut through this noise, set goals and align around new sets of priorities.

However, not every university presidential initiative is created equal. In fact, the scope, execution and material needs of these projects can vary wildly. This non-uniformity is just one challenge when it comes to positioning your presidential initiatives for success.

What are some other obstacles that get in the way?

Challenges of Positioning Presidential Initiatives

While all PIs are pursued with the aim of making a positive impact on the school, unfortunately, not all efforts attain the same degree of success.

What accounts for the success of some initiatives and the failures of others? If you’re considering undertaking a presidential initiative at your school, you should be aware of these common operational struggles.

No Place to Call Home

Ideally, an initiative that encompasses the entire university would be placed in the hands of someone who has commensurate reach and access to resources. Someone like the school’s chief marketing officer. And, in best case scenarios, your presidential initiative would be staffed by a whole team of talented, higher ed marketers closely connected to the planning and execution of the effort.

Creating a team specifically tasked with achieving the goals of the initiative might seem like a natural approach. And you’d think a project that bears your school president’s name would receive the highest priority in terms of staffing and resources.

Unfortunately, that’s not how presidential initiatives are always run. In fact, it’s more common for these projects to operate without a formal departmental home or sufficient dedicated staff.

While some presidential initiatives may initially start out under the guidance of the CMO in the school’s central marketing department, most rarely stay there. Often, communications functions are moved outside of the university marketing unit and assigned to someone with too little time, and perhaps not enough experience or information to be successful.

In some cases, these responsibilities are assigned to staff in an academic (rather than administrative) department who already have a full-plate of responsibilities, and a different reporting structure. This person is unlikely to have access to the same relationships with high-level university officials or important outside audiences (i.e. state legislators or big-money donors). As such, they may struggle to garner the necessary attention and win the required support from critical groups.

And, even if they do manage to reach and activate the right stakeholders, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to provide the necessary support throughout the life of the project. Why? Because supporting the initiative is often only a peripheral focus, a small part of their assigned portfolio of duties.

In worst case scenarios, after an initial publicity sprint, no one is left explicitly in charge of the initiative’s marketing and communications efforts. And that certainly has an impact on how it is executed.

Undefined Objectives, No Measurement

Presidential initiatives are created for big missions. To achieve the goals of these initiatives, you need clearly explained objectives and a well-executed plan. But, while some presidential initiatives are very well defined, others sometimes aspire to achieve goals that are harder to quantify.

With no clear objective, you can’t expect the rest of the school to adopt the same set of tactics and strategies. It’s hard to work toward a common goal if you don’t know what it is (or if one exists at all). It’s also impossible to evaluate the progress that you make. So, while work may be taking place all over campus, there’s no way to know how well the overall mission of the initiative is being served.

It’s for this reason that you’ll sometimes find presidential initiatives without an end point. After all, how do you know if you’ve accomplished what you set out to do if you’re not measuring the results?

Uncoordinated Execution

When initiative staff are dispersed among various, unconnected departments, it’s hard to create, maintain and execute even the best-intentioned marketing plans. Instead, what you often end up with are uncoordinated efforts that don’t always align with the overall goals of the initiative.

Remember, in many cases, work toward an initiative’s goals may already be going on before the initiative is created. For example, academic leaders, recognizing a need to foster diversity, equity and inclusion, might pursue DEI programming in their departments long before the university announces an overarching initiative to achieve that end. And each department may employ separate tactics, strategies and programs in order to create a more DEI-friendly unit culture.

If these efforts are not connected and coordinated, they may fail to achieve the intended impact and the most possible good. Or, at worst, they may create confusion and work against each other.

How to Make It Happen: Moving Past the Challenges of Presidential Initiatives

All these challenges can certainly make executing a successful presidential initiative harder. But there are things you can do to position your projects to attain the best possible level of success.

Define and communicate (with limited resources)

It’s important to start any project off on the right foot. For presidential initiatives that often means a big announcement. This comes with a speech by the university president to define the mission, outline a vision for how to achieve it and fire up the troops for the work ahead.

But, hold tight. There’s a lot that needs to happen before that speech can be given.

First, you need to clearly define the goals of the initiative and develop a captivating overall message to encourage buy-in and participation. And you have to prepare to share that message broadly with the general public, as well as with distinct internal and external audiences.

Let’s remember, your initiative will not enjoy unlimited resources or regular staffing. As such, it’s important to create communication tools that anyone can pick up and use at any point in the project to advance the initiative cause. Developing these tools early will help to build a strong foundation for future work to be completed.

One of the most critical tools is a landing page or independent site on your school’s website. If your initiative will not have a physical office or dedicated staff to take calls and answer questions, the website will serve as the initial contact point for anyone looking to help or learn more. The page should drive visitors to take appropriate action in support of the initiative and be up and running before your school president steps up to the podium.

You may also consider developing marketing campaigns for key audiences in advance. The goal is to be able to activate these campaigns at the right time in the process with minimal effort. Be sure to also prepare the necessary collateral and branding guidelines for use with these campaigns.

Be Prepared to Speak to Diverse Audiences

A university-wide initiative will have many audiences, on-campus and off. Understanding your key targets is critical to the success of the initiative—you have to know to whom you are speaking, why, and what you’re trying to accomplish. It helps to know as much about these distinct groups as possible in order to create and deploy effective marketing and communication tactics.

The best way to get to know your target audiences is by creating a realistic model, or a persona. Be sure to create at least one for each critical audience group.

To be most effective and accurate, these should be based on real people. So, you may need to do some research (focus groups, interviews, questionnaires) in order to properly inform your persona writing. And making early connections with these groups can serve the initiative’s goals further down the road.

Get Buy-in From Stakeholders

You can’t execute a presidential initiative all by yourself. It takes a lot of coordination from stakeholders at all levels of the university, and sometimes, outside of the university. This means you need to earn buy-in from a considerable number of people and groups.

Knowing your audiences will allow you to reach them more effectively. It will also help you develop the right messaging plans and frameworks to activate these groups and encourage them to take necessary action.

Messaging is so critical! You have to have a solid and effective messaging strategy for each one of your important audience groups. This is best done by matching your audience personas with appropriate communication tools and tactics.

Connect, Elevate and Publicize

With the mission defined, critical audiences identified and appropriate communications tactics and strategies outlined, you should be set up well for the work of the initiative to proceed. And, remember, some work may have already been done previously.

At this point, your goal should be to connect the various efforts taking place on campus (and, potentially off campus) and make sure they are positioned under the umbrella of the initiative. And, of course, you also want this work to be recognized and talked about in order to create even more energy to fuel the initiative.

Because of this, you need to make sure that all communication efforts to announce, celebrate or otherwise publicize the efforts are easily linked back to the effort. One way to achieve this is with branding/sub-branding guidelines (which you hopefully developed at the project outset). This is also where your previously created messaging frameworks, marketing campaigns and publicity collateral can be deployed with maximum effect.

Communication is Key to Presidential Initiative Success

Presidential initiatives aren’t used to address your ordinary, every-day problems. They are reserved for big issues that require immediate institutional prioritization and broad participation. To position your next presidential initiative for success, you need a robust marketing communication strategy that accounts for the diversity of your target audiences and the complexity of the mission at hand.