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Building the presidential brand: hard work, focus, and a carefully constructed game plan are the ticket. (Marketing).

Nearly a year ago, one of the first columns I wrote for University Business addressed strategies for building a college or university institutional brand. But what about the individual who personifies the institution--what about the president? Could your brand-building strategies be better focused in that area? Usually, the answer to that question is an unqualified "Yes!"


If you've ever heard of the "halo effect," then you'll understand the reasoning behind building a strong presidential brand: If the president is well known, then his or her brand will "halo" the institution. The surprising fact is that both institutions in need of image help, and institutions with strong images already in place, will benefit from such a halo--particularly when the president's brand is of interest to the institution's most important target audiences. Colleges that sought to hire Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf after Desert Storm understood this phenomenon. The halo effect can increase and enhance a college's standing in the media, before foundations, and among peer institutions.


The strategies for building institutional and presidential brands are very similar. Both depend on creating relevance and generating awareness. First, let's spend a few minutes on relevance.

Presidents who are merely interested in publicity will view almost any press as good press. Presidents who are interested in building a personal brand, however, want to use the press and other outlets as opportunities to build or extend the brand. Ideally, the decision about what the president wants to be known for (his or her brand), should be heavily influenced by the college's strategic plan. It makes great sense for Dr. George Ebbs, president of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (FL), to be known as an expert on some aspect of aviation. It makes less sense for him to be known for the long-term benefits of Title IX. When a college wants to develop three or four words, phrases, or even issues as part of its brand, great synergy is achieved if the president's brand is in sync with them.

As a president (or an advisor to a president) remember that your target audiences define relevance, not you. In almost all cases, relevance involves:

* Importance

* Believability

* Consistency

Importance. This is a little tricky. It isn't about chasing the news, but it is about understanding how the news influences what's hot and what's not. Being an expert on mediation is one thing. But in 2003, being an expert on using mediation to solve global issues--particularly global issues related to the Middle East--is quite another.

Some topics never go out of style in the higher ed arena, however. Yet while the topics may not be stale, it's amazing how stale most approaches continue to be. Every year, after colleges announce their tuition increases, there is a spate of stories about spiraling costs. Most presidents have little real insight to add to the topic. And then there is Dr. John Moore, president of Grove City College (PA), probably the least expensive, top-ranked private college in the country. Moore, an economist, can speak volumes about the relationship between college cost and government bureaucracy. He'll passionately discuss the Supreme Court case that Grove City argued in 1984, and the school's concerns about signing the final line of the Assurance of Compliance Form that dictated the college would adhere to all current and future federal regulations. Grove City was opposed to exposing itself to unknown regulations, and fought the issue. As a result, the school relieved itself of endless government bureaucracy that it saw as a key driver of spiraling college costs.

Is your president conversant and credible on a number of issues, yet having trouble focusing his/her efforts? Hire a good media consultant to help test the waters with different media reps to see where their interests lie. Another option: Check out Profnet ( to see which topics are "hit" most often by the media.

Believability. The president of "unknown liberal arts college in the middle of Kansas" will likely not gather much of a forum on how the liberal arts are changing to respond to a more technological world. But the presidents of Denison University, Kenyon College, or Oberlin College, all in Ohio, certainly could.

Believability flows from a body of work seasoned with a lifetime of perspective. Many college presidents could talk about sports and higher education. But John Roush, the president of Centre College (KY) and a three-time academic all-American in football at the University of Ohio, has, throughout his adult life, studied the impact of sports on higher education. He has served on commissions and been a consultant; his is the perspective of an expert. Dr. Royce Money's career was one of working with and strengthening families, long before he became president of Abilene Christian University (TX). Both topics--sports and families--are central to the missions of those institutions.

Consistency. Finally, there is the notion of stick-to-it-iveness, or consistency. It can take years to establish a presidential brand, and hopping from hot topic to hot topic will more likely confuse a presidential brand rather than build it. As tempting as it may be for a president (and a communications director) to seek the opportunity to comment on every story or issue in the news, tactfully and gracefully resist the temptation. I am not suggesting that you leave the media in the lurch, or appear uninterested--just be willing to point the media in other directions.


After relevance, generating awareness is key. Although creating internal awareness is certainly essential, for the purposes of this discussion, I'll focus on creating awareness with external audiences. And while there are dozens of options in this arena, let's look at the handful that offer special promise.

Media relations. For a comprehensive review of how to build a media relations program, take a look at my column in last month's issue of this publication ["Get Ink." Marketing, December 2002]. A strong, well-conceived, and well-funded media relations program can help build a president's brand through feature stories and interviews.

Op-ed pieces. Both paid (i.e., advertising) and unpaid, these editorials or commentaries typically run opposite the editorial page in newspapers and other print media. Of course, today, op-ed pieces can include commentary on radio, TV, or even the Web.

Monographs can be distributed to the administrators at peer institutions, educational associations, government leaders, lobbyists, and finally, the media. They should be timely and topical, thoughtful, and quotable. A number of years ago, Richard Hersh, former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges (and now president of Trinity College in CT), published the seminal monograph, Intentions and Perceptions: A National Survey of Public Attitudes Toward Liberal Arts Education. The report neatly summed up a national study on the public's perception of the liberal arts, was widely distributed and its contents widely reported.

Special events and symposia. Hosting special events or symposia on a topic of interest to the media--and even involving the media as guest presenters--can be an extremely effective way to build a presidential brand. The Knight Higher Education Perspectives (, in which presidents and administrators are assembled to discuss a particular topic (with the results of the discussion published afterward), is an excellent example of the successful use of special events.

Quotables. A Web site that features current and pithy quotes on particular topics will be invaluable to media in search of a quote. Ideally, these quotes are organized around specific topics or are searchable. If they are derived from a speech, a citation must be included. Of course, having a series of quotes on a Web site is one thing; driving traffic to the site is another.

Public speaking. Presidents, because they are presidents, have endless opportunities to speak before groups. But when you think "groups," don't just think alumni, new faculty, or Kiwanis. Use appropriate venues as part of a brand-building strategy. Presidents with a strong interest in athletics, for example, might speak at a Big Ten athletic conference, or presidents with an interest in Christian colleges might address the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Remember, though, that the path to the national, Sunday morning talk shows, and to interviews on NPR won't happen overnight. Presidents need to spend time in Dubuque before they can get that chance at Black Rock.

Host your own talk show. No joke here: A surprising number of colleges and universities have radio and TV stations. All of these stations are looking for quality content. Make it a success, and mainstream media may take a look, too.


Developing a presidential brand takes an enormous amount of discipline. You need to stay focused, stay current, and continually look for links, angles, changing events, and new outlets that give you a fresh opportunity to build your brand. Mostly, building a brand takes work. Maybe that's why I have a small paperweight on my desk that reminds me that reputations--and brands--are not built on what I am going to do!

Robert Sevier is a senior VP of Stamats Communications (; his new book, Building a Brand That Matters, is available from Strategy Publishing at
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Author:Sevier, Robert A.
Publication:University Business
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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