Government Relations and Marketing: A Potentially Dynamic Duo

Three ways Government Relations and Marketing departments can collaborate to successfully advocate for their schools.

By: Kristen Baker, Kyle Scott
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Let’s be clear: marketing should drive enrollment. Enrollment is the financial lifeblood of an institution of higher education. But enrollment does not operate in a vacuum, and is inextricably linked to the marketing department. Even if the marketing department does not control the entire enrollment funnel – and very often it is taking direction, not giving it – it ultimately plays a significant role in the success or failure of enrollment. As such, marketing usually works closely with, or even within the same department as, admissions, financial aid, and student services. But there are other critical factors and decision makers that are often overlooked: Local, state, and federal governments also have a profound effect on the financial health of educational institutions.

Marketing and government relations (GR) departments must become closer partners in facing the challenges and meeting the opportunities presented in coping with these outside influences on enrollment and revenue. Public institutions receive direct funding from state legislatures. Changes in a state’s allocation model result in direct consequences for colleges. So, colleges must maintain close connections with their elected officials to help ensure their goals and concerns are part of any relevant legislative deliberations. They also must project a positive brand image among legislators and the community at large, so public sentiment remains favorable for colleges. Beyond direct funding, any law that affects the enrollment or loan process will impact the bottom line of both public and private institutions. To make sure that impact is positive, colleges need to maintain a positive image among all audiences.

At Lone Star College in Texas, one of the largest and most diverse community colleges in the country, the government relations and marketing departments work closely to ensure alignment in messaging and tactics, developing content that resonates with multiple audiences. This alignment is critical to achieving the overall financial objectives of the college. Equally important is that, through collaborative engagement across departments, college staff members gain a broader perspective on the issues facing their institutions and, as a result, devise more creative solutions to address those issues.

Here are three recommendations for how institutional marketing & government relations teams can better work together, along with reasons that cooperation is in their best interest.

1. Message Alignment

The more important higher education is perceived to be, the more support will be provided to colleges and universities. There is a lot of handwringing about the value proposition offered by higher ed. This message has led marketing departments to think about how we articulate the value proposition to students and parents. But marketing departments should broaden their focus to encompass community stakeholders – business leaders, elected officials, and community influencers – to articulate the value of higher education. This task usually is left to GR departments, without much collaboration with marketing. 

At LSC, one of our pillar messages is “Generating nearly $3 billion in economic impact to the Houston economy every year.” We use this message, and variations of it, to reach potential students and community stakeholders. It signals to students that we can help them get a job and lets community stakeholders know we provide a boost to the local economy.

LSC and other two-year institutions across the state have increasingly positioned themselves as irreplaceable in the creation of a skilled workforce to build and sustain a strong economy. This positioning helped two-year schools escape the 5 percent budget cuts four-year universities endured as part of the state’s attempt to address a budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

LSC also experienced a 1 percent increase in student headcount during the past year, when most colleges and universities experienced declines in enrollment. Collaboration between government relations and marketing allowed the creation and promotion of a message that worked well during the pandemic across a broad range of audiences, thus helping to secure the financial health of the institution.

2. Asset Sharing

Even at higher ed institutions with sophisticated CRM platforms, there is a tendency for departments to maintain separate contact lists and calendars. Marketing and government relations should create a common contact list and calendar of engagement.

The departments also should share knowledge. Marketing teams work directly with enrollment management teams, conduct focus groups and draw on insights from surveys and campaign performance. Government relations officials attend chamber of commerce meetings and legislative hearings and take part in other politically oriented activities. These teams should share feedback they receive from their audiences and constituencies to broaden each department’s understanding of how the institution is perceived in the community and how they can develop and articulate their institutional value proposition.

3. Leadership Buy-In

If institutional leadership doesn’t acknowledge and appreciate the importance of a strong alliance between GR and marketing, the cause is sunk. Some members of leadership think GR initiatives should be handled secretly and shudder at the idea of publicly advocating for a policy. To overcome that concern, focus on how perception management can yield gains without being explicit about the ask. Cautious leadership will be receptive to a more general reputation management plan informed by government relation needs, as opposed to an overt push for specific policy objectives.

It also is important to get leadership buy-in for budgetary reasons. Targeting elected officials requires different tactics than targeting students. That difference means less money – assuming a fixed marketing budget – spent directly on recruitment. GR and marketing must articulate to key decision makers the value of advancing the institution’s image. Return on investment should be calculated against government relations key performance indicators, rather than traditional marketing metrics.

While campus leadership is keyed into the importance of government decisions on the financial health of an institution, marketing is rarely considered to be part of the solution. But government relations and marketing are natural partners in the drive to secure an institution’s financial health, and should be treated and supported as such.

Kristen Baker

Kristen Baker

Kristen Baker is the Director of Government Relations at Lone Star College, where she works to advance the mission and legislative agenda of the college.

Kyle Scott

Kyle Scott

Kyle Scott is the Vice Chancellor of Strategic Priorities at Lone Star College which includes the Departments of Government Relations and Marketing & Communications, among others.

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