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Brown reshapes communications strategy

Cross-departmental communication, centralized style characterize new strategy

Nov. 1 marked 18 months since Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt arrived at Brown and helped form the Office of University Communications. With this passage of time has come a marked strategic shift in the University’s communications operations toward prioritizing the active promotion of the University’s mission on and off campus.

Cliatt’s vision reflects President Christina Paxson’s P’19 commitment to communications. In her first year and a half at Brown, Cliatt has corralled a staff of 47 people, established a branch of marketing, hired a new director of news and editorial development, assumed leadership over Brown’s graphic services team and integrated her strategic plan in communications functions across campus.

“Brown is a very decentralized place,” Cliatt said. But the OUC has centralized a number of functions, including the University’s Visual Identity Policy and Strategy. Published in July, it creates a centralized standard for the presentation of materials — pamphlets, booklets and websites, to name a few — from departments and centers across campus. Whether creating a t-shirt or a magazine, this guideline “helps unify the way we communicate” in streamlining the logo, color, font and basic message of the materials, said Jim Kempster, assistant vice president for marketing communications.

“Just as much as Brown gives strength and reputation to its constituencies, the quality of its parts contribute to the (University’s) strength and reputation,” he said.

Kathryn Dunkelman, the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs’ director of communications and outreach, noted that this marketing strategy “ensures that people see the connection” between Brown and all of its moving parts. “Why would you not associate yourself with a well-established institution?” she added.

With the hiring of a new dean of admission and a new assistant vice president of advancement communications, the formation of the OUC has allowed for more cross-departmental communication and collaboration. The Office of Advancement has been working “to have better coordination across all departments,” and there has been a tangible shift in this effort since Paxson arrived, said Todd Andrews ’83, vice president of alumni relations.

“Brown’s culture is not well suited to a corporate image. We don’t have a corporate culture; we don’t want to have a corporate culture,” Paxson said. While the OUC is charged with ensuring cohesiveness, “there’s not a ‘Brown view,’ or a set of talking points that all faculty and students have in common, and that’s a good thing,” she added.

Additionally, the OUC serves as a source of University news: The office and its team provide communications services to all students, staff members and faculty members alike. It also navigates the rapidly changing media landscape, identifying trending and evolving forms of information exchange and leveraging them to continue to share Brown’s complex and diverse story.

The OUC is “not an independent news organization. We shouldn’t be an independent news organization. And we shouldn’t pretend to be an independent news organization. We have a different mission,” said Brian Clark, director of news and editorial development. “It’s self-serving to a degree, but that’s okay.”

Cliatt agreed, “We’re not going to be a substitute for the student newspaper.”

Creation of the OUC

During Paxson’s first few years at Brown, “It became clear to me that the world of communications was changing so fast and was becoming more and more central to everything that we do,” Paxson said. “We are now living in a world where there is no divide between internal and external communications.”

Before the OUC, the Office of Public Affairs and University Relations — which was led by Marisa Quinn, current chief of staff to the provost — focused on cultivating and maintaining relationships with local, state and national media personnel and government contacts. PAUR handled some of the communications functions the OUC is now responsible for but was largely focused on external affairs.

After about seven years as the vice president of PAUR, Quinn moved to the Watson Institute as its new director of communications and outreach in January 2015. The staffing change “created an opportunity for President Paxson to crystallize communications as an important function for the university as a whole,” Quinn said.

“Natural staff transitions” create opportunities to rethink certain structures, Paxson said. “After Marisa decided to leave, … I decided that I wanted to create this new structure.”

Paxson launched a search for a vice president of communications and included Cliatt’s name in the pool. Paxson knew of her work from their shared time at Princeton. “I knew she had the skillset that I needed, which was to integrate communications across the University without stifling individuality and also think more holistically about a communications framework,” Paxson said.

When Cliatt arrived in April 2015, the OUC assumed and enlarged the communications functions of PAUR, while Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 took over the government relations previously managed by PAUR.

Cliatt was drawn to Brown because the school “is at an inflection point. And that’s really exciting as a place with a strong identity that’s student-centered, collaborative, constructively irreverent, activist.”

Upon her arrival, Cliatt “went on a listening tour,” meeting with cabinet members, student leaders, committee members and faculty members, she said. She noted that the school’s “individual spirit” can sometimes pose challenges in presenting a unified identity.

The University in public life

Given the release of Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion, Paxson’s multiple columns in major news outlets and coverage of recent campus initiatives, Brown has a high profile in national media. According to The Herald’s 2016 fall undergraduate poll, 34.8 percent of students think Brown is either somewhat or very inaccurately portrayed in this sphere. Charged with the stewardship of Brown’s face, image and voice, Cliatt said she thinks critically about media coverage.

“Twenty-five years ago, universities had to rely on earned media coverage” to tell their stories to a broad audience, Clark said.

Quinn noted that her strategy largely focused on straightforward news releases, news features and sharing with alums and elected officials stories that reinforced and advanced the University’s profile. As traditional news media declined and social media rose during her tenure, opportunities “to tell our story ourselves” emerged, she added.

“The old idea was that you tried to stay ahead of the media,” Paxson said. “You could not stay ahead of the new media. It’s happening in nanoseconds.”

“That means that we need to spend more time than we used to really thinking about how internal events are going to be portrayed externally and how we can get ahead of some of the coverage of Brown that I think doesn’t always do justice to the University,” she added.

Without the OUC stewarding Brown’s image, “There was a tendency to allow different voices to tell the story of Brown,” Cliatt said.

The dramatic shift in how people consume information — moving from traditional newspapers to online sources like social media  — required a purposeful shift in “telling Brown’s story,” Cliatt said. The OUC proactively shapes the University’s message, whether by reporting on new University initiatives, featuring the accomplishments of community members or publishing statements on university affairs.

But the multiplying modes of communication make it difficult to control what enters the mainstream. Paxson noted the recent vandalism of American flags on the Main Green on Veteran’s Day as an example.

“After the episode, an alum who graduated in the 1950s emailed me that … a very similar incident happened in the 1950s. He said nobody knew about it. He doesn’t even think (The Herald) reported it (at the time). This internal news did not become national news,” she said.

“We have an incident that’s very similar some 60 years later that went to social media, then to the mainstream media, then to Fox News. That wouldn’t have happened 25 years ago. It probably wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” Paxson added.

“The largest challenges are not with traditional news media but more the proliferation of blogs and content providers that are aiming to leverage an agenda,” Clark said.

For example, in late August, the University of Chicago letter to first-year students originally about freedom of speech in the university appeared on a small blog and was later picked up by national media.

“I think we tend to get caricatured in the media and oftentimes that’s mischaracterization,” Paxson said. “One of the goals of our communications strategy is to really show the world what Brown is.”

But University statements and press releases online also provide reporters with another resource and “help shape early news coverage,” Cliatt said. “Reporters won’t call to get the first-hand story anymore,” so asserting Brown’s position helps mitigate the repercussions of misinformation.

Additionally, the OUC works to promote the work being done at Brown. Brown’s top priority is “to do excellent work,” Dunkelman said.

“But we don’t want to do all of that in a vacuum,” she added. “Communications is a pertinent part of the (University’s) mission.”

Before and beyond Brown

“Two very key audiences” that the OUC serves are prospective students and their families and Brown alums, Cliatt said.

The OUC approaches prospective students differently than current students and alums, focusing on cultivating an understanding of Brown rather than active engagement on social media and through coverage, Cliatt said.

With Logan Powell’s arrival as the new dean of admission, Cliatt said the two departments have had early conversations about how they can partner. The Admission Office produces massive amounts of information for prospective students, including print communications, travel information, emails, social media engagement, tours and interviews.

Many admission offices hire external vendors to create that content, and Brown’s Admission Office has worked with an outside vendor to print its materials. While nothing is settled yet, the OUC and the Admission Office are in the process of determining what their partnership will look like going forward, Cliatt wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

The Admission Office also communicates through in-person high school and regional visits, Powell said. “We’re also visible in certain publications. We don’t just arbitrarily look for space in magazines or particular websites, but there are some that are very focused on students and the college admissions process.”

Come the end of admission season, Powell is looking to collaborate with Cliatt and the OUC to “better synchronize what we’re sharing with prospective students” through the admission website and social media accounts, he said.

But Powell added that no “massive overhaul” needs to occur in the messaging; rather, he thinks the Admission Office and the OUC will collaborate to figure out “how we get that message to a broader audience.” Powell noted that sharing information about affordability with low- and middle-income high school students and families is crucial.

Paxson echoed that one of Cliatt’s strengths is that she is “passionate” about issues of access and financial aid, and Cliatt understands how to integrate those issues into a communications framework.

“At the heart of our conversations at Brown that is driving us forward is an agreement that (the) Admission (Office) and Communications will work more closely together to communicate not only with prospective students who are interested in Brown but also students who might not even be thinking that Brown is a possibility for them. This is a shared charge,” Cliatt wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald.

The OUC also pairs with the Office of Advancement to engage with alums. Joseph Zappala, assistant vice president for advancement communications, arrived at Brown in August and is still developing his role.

Key aspects of advancement communications include helping alums feel connected to and engaged with the University and with each other, Zappala said. Promoting the BrownTogether fundraising campaign among alums, parents and friends of the University also plays a role in advancement communications, Zappala added. The OUC partnered with the Office of Advancement on the campaign marketing materials Advancement uses to promote BrownTogether.

Advancement also works with the OUC in media relations. “When something happens at the University that’s controversial, it’s important for us to be prepared to answer questions,” Zappala said. Advancement looks to share the same statements from the OUC, “so we’re all staying consistent and communicating the same message.”

“It’s really critical for a unit like this and other units to be partnering with (the) OUC. In the end, it’s all about the University and moving the University forward. It’s important to make sure that we’re in step together on communication,” Zappala added.

Additionally, the OUC oversees the Brown Alumni Magazine. When she arrived, Cliatt found the magazine “operated almost as a silo, predominantly focused on covering the life of alumni after they leave Brown rather than cover(ing) the life of Brown itself.” She added that the magazine offers another outlet for University news written with different perspectives from what the primary news office can produce.

The underlying strategy adheres to the OUC’s aim to unify the University’s messaging “so the Brown they know during the process, during their time here and after their time here is not different,” Cliatt added.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt oversees a staff of "over 50 people" at the Office of University Communications. In fact, she oversees a staff of 47 people. The previous version also contained a graphic that mislabeled the "News and Editorial" department as "News and Media." The graphic also did not contain "Media Relations" as a function of the "News and Editorial" department. The Herald regrets the errors.


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