Edelman to Higher-ed Marketers: Prepare for Populist "Revolutions"

Hal Conick
Marketing News
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Key Takeaways

What? Marketers must prepare for revolutions coming to universities across the country.

So what? Edelman will speak about these revolutions, including the spreading populist uprising, during his keynote at the AMA’s 2016 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education.

Now what? Universities need to rethink their marketing strategy. Edelman calls for the addition of a “chief engagement officer” to control the context of communications from within the university.

​Nov. 18, 2016

Edelman president and CEO says the U.S. is in the midst of the “biggest populist uprising since Andrew Jackson.” How should university marketers react?


“Is this kind of nuts?” asks Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, after explaining the “revolutions” he says must happen in marketing across universities.  

It may be nuts, but so too may be the times. In a keynote speech Edelman will deliver at the AMA’s 2016 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, he plans to discuss these revolutions, which include the current populist movement—encapsulated by President-elect Donald Trump’s surprising victory—and innovation coming from universities, such as robotics and artificial intelligence. 

Edelman believes universities are “lagging the reality of the world, and they shouldn’t be.” Marketing News spoke with Edelman about suggested changes of universities, the content of his keynote and how universities can drive the conversation. 

Q: What do you have planned for your keynote at the higher education symposium?

A: There are three or four revolutions happening simultaneously that affect universities. The first is obvious: With Trump having been elected, you can see it yourself: the yawning gap in trust and the disillusioned trust in institutions. Academic institutions are  … now seen as the bastions of the elite. That authority is diminished.

The second point is the real divide between the elites and mass population, which is a correlated point.

The third point is that there’s a consequential fear of innovation. People are really nervous about the pace of it. Universities are going to be blamed for it because a lot of innovation comes from universities. Whether its Google or robotics, people are nervous.


 Richard Edelman on leaders and the public's trust


The last thing—and most important thing for the PR-types of the group—is the utter falling-in of the mainstream media. Print advertising for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times fell 20% in the last quarter. That’s just massive. They’re both going to do layoffs, they’re going to stop covering arts and entertainment so much, and they’re going to stop covering universities so much unless there’s a scandal. They’re just not going to have the bodies to do it.

The environment of universities is also deeply affected by the advent of technology, which makes every incident immediately read. Suddenly there’s a push to rename dorms that were named 150 years ago because the person was a racist or the person owned slaves or any of these things. There’s also this revelation of sexual misconduct on campus and all sorts of pressure from society onto campus again, which has become a microcosm. There’s nothing new there but it needs to be stated.

Q: Where does all of this lead universities?

A: In this society if universities don’t stop what they’re doing now, the populist wave is going to wash over them in such ways to cut funding from states, to make it really hard to cultivate wealthy donors. Universities have to control their own context. 

I propose a new job created at universities called a chief engagement officer. The chief engagement officer will take on everything from tradition communications, public affairs, marketing to what I am calling social customer service—that which is digital. This role will be responsible for being the sort of means by which the university reaches outside of its walled garden.

The energy of the university must radiate outward instead of inward. The president of the university has to be a public intellectual, not just a person who is a fundraiser and administrator. The job is to lead and not simply to manage. I think it goes back to what presidents of universities did in the ‘70s—think Kingman Brewster at Yale—in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Then it requires a different skillset of the communications person. It means that person becomes the chief content officer … If you’re at Columbia University for neuroscience, how does that fit into the context of overall education and what does it mean for the community and what does it mean for jobs? It’s looking at the school in a fundamentally different way, where you do something, then you promote it, and then you protect it. 

Q: Surveys have found an intellectual divide among professors in universities, with more liberal than conservative. Does this divide need to be bridged to solve some of these issues?

A: The question is what the university of the future is: Is it a trade school? Does everyone become a computer programmer? Or is it to generally educate everybody? If the aspiration is to be the great urban university, then you better have both skills. You better understand what it takes to make a civil city, which is some aspect of art, some aspect of theater, some aspect of culture and some aspect of politics. Not everybody is going to be a tech head, even at Stanford.

Edelman has worked on some of the most important issues facing universities in the last five years. We worked on Duke Lacrosse, Penn State, Dartmouth, Calhoun College at Yale and The Ohio State marching band. We’ve worked on Georgetown as they’ve gone global

I have a really good sense of the best and brightest of universities and think the structures are wrong. They’re old. They’re from a prior world. Sitting back here is a greater risk than participating; that is a really important point. You can’t wait for crisis management. You’ll have no social capital and you’ll have no systems in place. You need social channels. You need means by which to move the discussion. You have to be part of it.

Q: It seems the internet and social media, at large, have taken a fair amount of control from universities. Is it about getting on these discussions as soon as possible and driving them from there?

A: Maybe, but I think [the issue is] actually leading the discussion. I don’t think its response. I’d say there’s a difference in that. I think it’s more what do we want to be? What do we want our brand to be? What stakeholders do we need to be in touch with and what’s our program of touching them and being a learning organization and being a social organization?

Great brands are not built from the top down anymore, they’re built by customers who interact and suggest things. It’s a learning organization, and that’s a different thing. Universities have always referred to themselves as the fountain of knowledge, but they have a lot of constituents who can make a lot of differences here.

Q: What do you think someone attending the symposium should look to take from it?

A: Here we have the biggest populist uprising in the country since 1829 with Andrew Jackson​. I think they ought to realize that that which has worked for them before may not work now. How are we going to not only fit in but try to manage our own environment in such a way that we can succeed?

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Starving the Beast: What Marketers Can Do to Reverse Higher-education Funding Cuts

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Author Bio:

Hal Conick
Hal Conick is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at hconick@ama.org or on Twitter at @HalConick.
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