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Now's the Time to Strengthen Connections with Constituents

Given recent news about the decline in trust in higher education among some Americans, it's essential to keep your most important constituents close.

July 13, 2017
 
 

Like businesses, government, the media — and let’s not even talk about Congress — higher education can’t escape the current cycle of disenchantment with institutions.

Alarming Findings from Edelmen and the Pew Research Center

In the 2017 Global Report of its Trust Barometer research, Edelman noted that the gap in trust between the general public and the four institutions of government, business, media and NGOs has widened to 21 points in the five years from 2012 to 2017. Edelman refers to the current state of affairs as a “trust crisis.”

This week the Pew Research Center published findings that track with these results, showing a widening gap between how Democrats and Republicans view colleges and universities. In a poll seeking to learn how the public views the impact of different institutions on our nation, Republicans told Pew that they view colleges and universities much more negatively than Democrats do. Pew observed:

“A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (58%) now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, up from 45% last year. By contrast, most Democrats and Democratic leaners (72%) say colleges and universities have a positive effect, which is little changed from recent years.”

Just two years ago, 54% of Republicans said higher ed had a positive impact on the country and only 37% rated our impact as negative.

There is some good news in this survey. A majority of the public (55%) say colleges and universities have a positive impact. And younger Republicans have a more positive view of colleges and universities than do older Republicans: “About half (52%) of Republicans ages 18 to 29 say colleges and universities have a positive impact on the country, compared with just 27% of those 65 and older.”

Yet, overall, the Pew results, as well as those from Edelman, are really depressing. They depict a world gripped by fear. Edelman reports that people trust search engines more than traditional media and live in an echo chamber where they are unwilling to listen to someone with a different point of view. A majority (52 %) never or rarely reconsider their position on important social issues.

Keep Connections Strong

These are difficult times. And some of these shifts have taken us by surprise. I’m also aware that results like these should remind everyone who works in marketing and communications in higher education that we’re called to be extra diligent and careful and work with renewed dedication. This is a time to make sure we’re keeping our constituents informed about what’s happening on our campuses.We need to share good news -- and not sugar-coat or avoid bad news.

And I think we can be optimistic. We can use the same tools that can be used to spread fake news and propaganda to our benefit. It turns out that those regular Facebook updates or tweets really do have the effect of keeping people engaged. And, when it comes to important constituents and groups, that’s significant.

For example,several weeks ago I spoke with Elizabeth Council, digital strategist at Hope College in Holland, MI. She told me about a successful initiative at Hope to identify and tell stories about what is happening on campus on the Stories of Hope blog and then ensure that the posts receive wide distribution through email and the colleges’s social channels.

As a result of this initiative, Council told me that she’s observed an interesting phenomenon. Alumni and donors feel involved with the college at a level that was never possible before. Because they follow Hope’s social streams, these important constituents are part of an ongoing conversation. Though they may dip in and out as time and attention wavers, the ongoing stream of conversation helps them to retain a feeling of connection to the college and a sense that they know what’s going on.

Not all of the stories that Council shares is national championship-level news; some are pretty mundane. It’s the ongoing engagement that’s important. Council notes, “… when something extraordinary happens — particularly when it’s bad — there isn’t as strong a negative reaction compared to a time when the only thing alumni remembered getting from us was a request for a gift. Now, our contact with them is not just about us asking for money or being in the headlines.”

These regular social updates help to remind Hope's constituents of the connection they share with an institution that’s important to them. Facebook likes or shares or retweets may seem trivial, but in fact they help to maintain a relationship and remind everyone of a more enduring connection when the news is less pleasant. 

And they serve as a reminder that in these times, we need to keep connections with our constituents as strong as possible. The means to do so is at our fingertips, as long as we’re willing to dedicate our time and attention to keeping social channels lively and engaging.

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