Educators Work with a Different Lexicon

I met with a group of leaders from a suburban school district for a short workshop on an introduction to branding. Like many other districts they are confronting issues related to changing demographics, declining enrollment, and increased competition.

When I started development of the session I was calling it “The B Word,” as I’ve experienced pushback from some educators on the use of the word brand. I ended up keeping brand in the title but I built the potential resistance into the workshop.

I said I’m not going to use marketing terms and talk about archetypes, sales, and competitors, but I am going to talk about communitydecisions, and alternatives. This seemed to resonate with the room and bring several more heads from the passivity to active nodding and engagement.

Many in education don’t like sales and don’t like to think of other educational choices as competitors, don’t make them.


Student-Focused Leadership

The below was originally published on

In years past, a description of a popular university leader may have included words like “strong,” “dynamic” and “worldly.” Today, there’s been a fundamental shift on campuses in how leadership is viewed and in the relationship between administrators and students. In the academic world, this new leadership model might be called the “interactional framework for analyzing leadership,” (Hughes et al, 2013) which identifies leadership as the intersection of leader, followers, and situation.

I caught up with Robert Nelsen, the eighth permanent president of California State University Sacramento, who sits, or, more accurately, walks briskly through that intersection. For Nelsen, everything starts not with who he is, but with the students. This includes the lobby in the president’s office, which is dominated by a large photo of students, not buildings or founders or past leaders like one often sees. The student-centered philosophy reflects an increased expectation of transparency, access and empathy from administrators to students. This connection with students is not just lip service from Nelsen, who speaks with an enthusiasm that’s hard to discount. When asked what he’d like to do more of, responds with, “I’d like to eat more meals in the dormitories than I do.”

The shift from a focus on the institution to one on students is happening at campuses across the country, and it isn’t without a few bumps, as some institutions have a history of “faculty first.” While faculty are on everyone’s mind at Sacramento State, it’s primarily for student education. Nelsen notes, “You have to get the entire leadership behind it. If they don’t put students first, you aren’t going to get there.” This isn’t just about him being there for a wide range of sporting events, from baseball to gymnastics to women’s basketball. When there’s a protest on campus, you’ll often see him sitting down to listen to what those gathered have to say, sometimes for hours.

A part of the student focus is practical. There’s a need to increase graduation rates and decrease the length of time it takes the average student to reach that milestone. Along with Nelsen’s motivation, new online tools help students meet this goal, as well as continued support at multiple steps along the way. Any discussion with Nelsen includes mention of these steps, such as adding more discussion sections, adding more faculty where needed, rethinking remediation and increasing the effectiveness of course scheduling and planning for students.

Patrick Dorsey is a graduate student in public policy and administration and the immediate past president of Associated Students, Inc., the student government of Sacramento State. He’s seen a change in the “life of the campus and the energy that would be two ways as students would see him [Nelsen] on campus and exchange ‘stingers up,’ hand signals.” This kind of exchange is extending into the surrounding community, and Dorsey sees it happening between alumni as well, which was something he never saw before.

“Today’s students expect more from administrators,” said Susana V. Rivera-Mills, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Oregon State University. “I think this stems first from the fact that many of them are now paying a lot more for their education, and as a result they also expect to get more.”

According to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, people have lost trust in the four institutions of government, business, media, and NGOs to do what is right, resulting in a rise of populist actions. This trend may also help explain the shift to student-first leaders, who, like Nelsen, may be seen as coming from the people (or students) as opposed to representing an establishment.

At Sacramento State, the student body reflects a change seen on many campuses: they aren’t the expected 18-year-olds living in the dorms. With 24 percent of students 25 or older and a median age of 22, this shift may have an impact on graduation rates, as students are often doing more than just focusing on their studies. Many students are also parents or working full time to support their education.

Rivera-Mills at Oregon State notes, “Many of our students are not the traditional age, they come to us with real life experiences and a sophistication for understanding administrative organizations. This knowledge also places them in an informed position about what they can expect from a university, and they are not shy about asking for what they need.”

Since today’s students are a little different than the students of years past, maybe they’d like having lunch with the president in the cafeteria as much as the president likes being there.

How do you transition social media properties?

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When you look at someone’s Twitter profile, or Instagram, you will often see something along the lines of “Opinions presented here do not represent my employer.”  That’s all well and good, but for the most part, you are representing your employer all the time. Social media has opened up new ways that employees and public figures build a public presence.

Let’s say that you have 500 Twitter followers, and are then hired into a high profile role at a major media company. As a result of your role, your followers grow to 100,000.  Yes, those are your followers, but could a case be made that they also belong to your employer?  What happens when you leave that job? In most cases, nothing.  You move onto your new position with your bounty of followers.  The President of the United States has chosen to do something a little different, and it’s something we can all learn from in terms of planning digital transitions.

Companies may encounter digital transitions when they do things like go through a merger, sunset a product or when a high-profile executive retires.  Read the plan from The White House and see if there is something you can use.

The Future of Higher Education in California – Mind the Gap

California State Senate Pro Tem Kevin DeLeon, University of California President Janet Napolitano and Mark Baldassare President and CEO Public Policy institute of California (PPIC) at the Opening of the PPIC Higher Education Center on April 12, 2016 (Photo by Josh Morgan)

California’s public higher education system has long been one of the leaders, if not the leader, in access and excellence for decades.  This leap beyond really came about during a period of intense focus on building infrastructure in the 1950’s and 60’s.  There were freeways built to move people, aqueducts to move water and a system of higher education to move minds.

From the flagship University of California (Berkeley) the system grew to include 10 UCs, 23 state universities and 113 community colleges.  The core of this system was access to higher education and the upward mobility promised by education that was the calling card for California.

The three areas of focus below were laid out by Hans Johnson during the introduction of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Higher Education Center and there was a fourth, excellence, added by University of California president Janet Napolitano in a forum that followed.  These areas of focus touch on most of the hot buttons surrounding public higher education in California right now, and in many cases as goes California often goes the country.  Due to our size, population and action, what happens in California impacts how other states react to challenges and as California State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin DeLeon added, “We are the leaders.  Washington DC looks to California.”



According to the master plan synopsis on the UC site, ”all California residents in the top one-eighth or top one-third of the statewide high school graduating class who apply on time be offered a place somewhere in the UC or CSU system, respectively, though not necessarily at the campus or in the major of first choice.  The “promise,” is still there but the follow-through isn’t.  According to the PPIC over the past three years more than 30,000 qualified California students who had applied to other schools were redirected to UC Merced, where fewer than 600 of those students registered.



There were significant state funding cuts for both UC and CSU during the recession and fees and tuition were increased significantly as a result.  There has also been an increase in available financial aid, but there is still a large majority of Californians that think that affordability in higher education is a big problem (PPIC Statewide Survey 2014). This perception gap makes it more difficult for legislators to support increasing higher education funding.


Getting to college is one challenge, getting through is another.  Only 61% of UC students graduate in four years and only 16% of CSU students within four, and slightly more than half in six years (which actually tracks pretty closely with national averages).  This may be an indicator that the notion of going away to college for years and coming back with a degree is done, or an indicator that there needs to be new capacity created for students to move through the system more quickly and create space for those needed to fill the gap of approximately 1.1 million bachelor degree educated students that California needs to fill.

Looking at the above, they are a bit like puppies and balloons. Who doesn’t like these ideas?  The issue is priority and with priority comes public support and funding.  Edelman recently released a study on “University Reputations and the Public,” which called out specific areas where public opinion needs to be focused to support the above and consequently where some of the future communications and public affairs challenges may lie.

  • Our survey found that only four in 10 public citizens say the university’s traditional role is vital to society (vs six in 10 that say universities need to evolve.). This is supported by data from an article (Shut up About Harvard) on that says, “Nearly half of all college students attend community colleges; among those at four-year schools, nearly a quarter attend part time and about the same share are 25 or older. In total, less than a third of U.S. undergraduates are “traditional” students in the sense that they are full-time, degree-seeking students at primarily residential four-year colleges.” The point being that the behavior of college students has evolved but the notion or understanding of what college is, perhaps has not.


  • When our survey asked if it is more important for universities to focus on providing a well-rounded education and student experience or it is more important that universities focus on providing students with tools and resources they need to succeed in a specific career, we found that academics worry about quality, while the public worries about jobs. This is actually being well addressed through the expansion of opportunities for specific career related options including baccalaureate or bachelor’s degrees being offered through community colleges in areas such as manufacturing, dental hygiene and respiratory care.  The continued growth of opportunities for advancement beyond traditional higher education may create friction over resources between traditional four year universities and colleges and other providers of advanced education.

There is a serious communication gap between what is happening and higher ed and what the popular narrative is.

How not double checking a PowerPoint May Have Cost Billions


I give a lot of presentations.  Many of these are new business presentations where there are PowerPoint slides up on a screen and I’m talking.  It’s amazing how no matter what else is on the screen if there is a mistake, everyone sees it, or at least it feels that way.

Now, if that mistake is including the wrong name…..everyone does see it.  The basketball shoe business is a multi-billion dollar business and it is name driven.  Jordan. Kobe. LeBron. Curry.  Those first three names are all with Nike.  The last used to be. Now he wears Under Armour.  Why?

A PowerPoint slide featured Kevin Durant‘s name, presumably left on by accident, presumably residue from repurposed materials. “I stopped paying attention after that,” Dell says.

The “Dell” referenced above is Stephen Curry’s dad.  Now, Nike didn’t double check that slide before they presented but you always should.  Read the rest of the article from ESPN.

It’s time to change our language in communications and marketing. Five phrases to leave behind.

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There are several phrases that are often used in marketing and communications that it’s time to retire, if there was ever a place for them.  I’ve grouped them into two groups. The first group is primarily related to the use of military and gun metaphors and similes when referring to tactics.  This is especially notable as I often work for clients that are involved in education, both software and services and with universities.  The second group of words are those that are just tasteless and often I find that people don’t know the true origin of the phrases.

Military and gun phrases:

  • “Boots on the ground.” – Most often used to refer to staff being onsite for an event with the original phrase referring to the placing of soldiers in harms way.
  • “Bullets in the chamber.” – In PR it’s talking about how many opportunities still exist but in real life it’s referring to how many shots you have left after you’ve already fired.
  • “Keeping our powder dry.” – I’ve heard people use this phrase to refer to holding something in reserve such as a tactic or a critical piece of information that they’d like to pull out later.  Now, it’s been a long time since the primarily method of firing guns included pouring black powder into a gun and then following it with a wad and a ball, but when it did, it was necessary to keep the black powder from becoming wet so it would fire properly.

Phrases that I swear most people don’t know what they mean they use them:

  • “Drinking the kool aid.” – This is used to describe believing in your own product or service and using it. Often used interchangeably with, “eating our own dog food.”  The origin of this is the mass forced suicide/murder  of 900, including several hundred children, followers of Jim Jones in the jungles of Guyana.  He led them there after enthralling them in San Francisco, then when he believed the circle was finally closing in on him he forced them to drink grape Flavor Aid that was laced with cyanide.
  • “Money shot.” – Generically used to refer to a big finish to a campaign, this is hysterically close to the original usage, but in that case it referred to a climactic shot in a porn movie.  I’ll let you get specific.