The role of your school marketer has changed … did you notice?

It’s no secret that communications and marketing have changed dramatically over the last decade. What is less obvious is that most school Heads have not modified the way they lead their school marketers. To maintain your position in a competitive marketplace, this must change.

The role of the Communications and Marketing Manager is a complicated one within your school. It is their job to develop and then execute the plan that supports the school’s strategic vision and goals. They must also get their colleagues and stakeholders on the same schedule, using the same messaging set, reporting by specific deadlines and using collaborative tools to manage and maximise the workflow.

Most importantly, prospective and current parents, students, faculty and even donors judge the merits of your school on the relevance, quality and timeliness of your school’s communications.

Dr Carrie Grimes, Director of the Independent School Leadership Master’s Program at Vanderbilt University, says, “We are seeing an evolution from conceptualising the marketing and communications professional in our schools as transactional employees who are there to crank out media collateral, push out newsletters, email blasts, and magazines, to seeing marketing and communications professionals as highly strategic, evidence-based practitioners who are designing strategy around a whole host of initiatives. These individuals have become extraordinarily important members of the leadership team.”

The ever-changing face of social media is just the visible tip of the way technology has, and continues, to reshape the communications and marketing iceberg. “The only way that a Head of School can seek to possibly navigate the complex waters of social media is in total partnership with a skilled and highly competent Director of Communications and Marketing. I can’t underscore this enough. That individual must have a seat at the executive leadership table and that relationship between the Director of Communications and the Head of School must be tightly tethered in high trust, particularly at crisis moments.”[1]

But what happens when there is something wrong with the culture of trust, collaboration and communication at a school?

Jill Goodman is a US-based consultant specialising in brand-related qualitative research and leadership facilitation for independent schools. She has studied the changing landscape and the impact on school marketers and Heads at close quarters. Jill told the School Marketing Journal about a typical situation.

In her initial meeting with one school’s Board, everyone agreed that there was a problem with the development, admissions and communications departments. Each area was falling short of the stated goals, and the Board members saw each department leader as lacking in skills. After several meetings with key stakeholders to assess the situation, Jill offered recommendations to the trustees. The Board chair asked her to mentor the school’s Head and provide guidance to the leaders of the three branches of the advancement team for one full school year.

“I quickly understood that the Head of School could not provide direction to the leaders and used a divide and conquer strategy to keep each leader from talking with each other.”

The Head did not allow the communications and marketing leaders to attend Board meetings or report to the Board on their progress or vision for their department. He insisted that his team members only speak to him before making any decisions. None of the three leaders trusted the other leaders and were wary of any collaboration. Most dishearteningly, they did not consider themselves leaders and felt disempowered.

“The Admissions Director and the Development Director were trying to uphold the unsustainable situation alone in their silos. We worked on several things together to increase efficiency and crystallise the vision for each area. We also created a vital working relationship and rapport with the Board.”

However, the situation was very different for the Marketing and Communications (MarCom) Director, said Jill. “She needed direct information and input from many people at the school to build an effective program. She needed to understand the Board’s strategic vision and have the latitude to lead the program. With the Head’s insistence on direct reports from all over the school, the MarCom Director found herself unable to obtain correct and timely information due to a lack of collaboration and trust. Faculty, staff, Board, admissions and development ignored her deadlines, and they expected her to respond to unreasonable last-minute demands. They expected her to monitor multiple calendars held by department chairs for possible changes. The Head and trustees blamed her for errors, omissions and miscommunications in the outward-facing calendar, social media posts and publications.”

In imageseven’s experience of working with schools across different countries, sizes, types and fee structures, we know this to be a common frustration of communications and marketing professionals in schools. But it is difficult for school Heads to lead and manage what they cannot see. The role of Communications and Marketing Director at your school is unlike any other professional you employ in the responsibility and accountability they carry but, typically, they carry very little authority to execute their duties and must rely on personal influence.

Over the course of a year, Jill was able to make considerable improvements. “By considering the unique challenges of the Marketing and Communications Director, we were able to make shifts in perceptions through practice. We changed her workflow, facilitated new school-wide policies for communications, and created a strategy to gain buy-in for the new guidelines. We recruited Board advocates in the form of a Marketing and Communications Committee and insisted that she appear and report at each Board meeting.”

Central to Jill’s work was building the basis for a collaborative team that came to be seen as leaders by all stakeholders. Each departmental leader was coached and each was empowered to make their own decisions as a team. At the same time, Jill worked with the school Head to help him trust his team’s skills and implement a reporting strategy that gave him the confidence to let go of the need to approve every decision. 

“Each person at an independent school has a complicated set of roles and responsibilities,” said Jill. She identified that the roles often conflict with one another or have competing goals. School Heads — the leaders of communications and marketing in their schools — must clarify this inherent murkiness and shed light on the blind spots.

To ignore this common and growing issue, which is being amplified by the broader changes in the communications and marketing industry, is to place at risk your future enrolments, growth and retention of students.

Ultimately, talented and otherwise high-performing practitioners are choosing to leave school marketing for positions in the commercial world. Not because they have lost their passion for marketing your school, but because they crave an environment where there is collaboration, trust and communication.

What now? Sit down with your school marketer, ask if this story resonates with them and then plan together the best way to address the challenge. The conversation will not necessarily be an easy one and the changes that result will take some time ­— possibly years — to implement, but they will almost certainly be amongst the highest return on investment decisions you make as a school Head.

Schedule the conversation now. You have very little to lose and so much to gain.

insight applied

  • The role of your school marketer has changed.
  • The school marketer’s role is unlike any other at your school.
  • Ensure your school marketer has clarity about your expectations.

[1]NORMAN, R. (2022) How to Be a Leader in an Independent School. [Podcast] inspirED school marketers SparkCast. 4th January. 

Brad Entwistle is the Founding Partner of imageseven. Since 1990, he has led his team on a mission to amplify the impact of schools by working directly with school Heads, tailoring solutions to maximise their communication and marketing effectiveness.

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