QuickFire: Carrie Phillips

18 questions with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Chief Communications and Marketing Officer

By: Kevin Renton
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Volt Publisher Kevin Renton sat down with Dr. Carrie Phillips, the Chief Communications and Marketing Officer for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, to discuss the importance of aligning the marketing budget with institutional goals while engaging with first-generation and non-traditional students. Part creative and part analyst, Dr. Phillips began her career leading a team of creatives and now spends her time engrossed with Google Analytics as the head of a marketing and communications team.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, located in the heart of Arkansas, is a public research university dedicated to serving the community and fostering collaborative learning. With more than 10,000 students and a diverse array of academic programs, including the William H. Bowen School of Law, the university provides students with opportunities for education and research across various fields, embodying its mission to promote accessibility and excellence in higher education.

Related: QuickFire: Danielle Sewell

Read the full transcript here

Kevin Renton:
Hi there. My name’s Kevin Renton and welcome to QuickFire from Volt. This is where we put higher education marketers on the hot seat and fire them with 20 rapid questions with the goal of understanding what makes them tick, what makes them successful, and what their goals are for the future. In the crossfire today we have Carrie Phillips, Chief Communications and Marketing Officer at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Welcome, Carrie.

Carrie Phillips:
Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here and a smidge nervous too.

Kevin Renton:
Awesome. It’ll be painless. We’ll go fast.

Carrie Phillips:
I love it.

Kevin Renton:
So off the bat, what’s your elevator pitch? What do you do at University of Arkansas at Little Rock?

Carrie Phillips:
Absolutely. I’ve been in this role about a year-and-a-half. Before that, I was at another institution for 14 years, and so I tell people that my job is part creative and part analyst. So I’m creative making sure that we’re telling a meaningful story, that we’re creating design that matches that story. But I’m also a little bit of an analyst, so I’m looking at analytics, looking at our data, trying to make sure that we’re making informed smart decisions. So really a blend of the two.

Kevin Renton:
I wanted to work in higher education because…?

Carrie Phillips:
So I am drawn to higher ed. It’s actually my second career, but I’m drawn to doing work that makes a difference. My grandfather only had a middle school education and he worked two jobs his entire life, very much wanted my dad and my uncle to have opportunities that he didn’t have. I think that education was so entrenched in their upbringing and that they should pursue that, that they both went on to not only get their bachelor’s, but their doctorates, and both become university professors. So higher education is part of who I am and wanted to be in that career field because it makes such a difference for our students.

Kevin Renton:
The marketing tool I can’t live without is…?

Carrie Phillips:
Google Trends. I love being able to look at what people are searching. I’ve used that all the time when we’re trying to come up with how to name something or what to think about calling something. That’s my favorite tool to make sure that we’re getting it right. It’s also really great sometimes if a department or a group has proposed a name that maybe isn’t quite right to be able to back that up and say, “Hey, this would be a better fit, and here’s why.”

Kevin Renton:
In the next five years I’d like to…?

Carrie Phillips:
Ooh, I want to personalize all the things. I think personalization is so important. We’re getting pretty good at that in terms of email comm flows and in terms of print messaging and small pieces, but how do we really do that on our website? How do we customize experiences when people come on campus and really personalize those for our students? So in the next five years, I would love to figure all the personalization out.

Kevin Renton:
I think there’s a small thing called ChatGPT that might be able to help you.

Carrie Phillips:
Right?

Kevin Renton:
My biggest professional mistake was…?

Carrie Phillips:
I did not take the budget seriously. As a creative, I’ve heard people say it, and I’ve even been guilty of saying it all my life is, “Oh, I’m a creative. I’m not a numbers person.” And when I was first put in charge of a team, I was also put in charge of the budget and nobody teaches you how to do that. You don’t get budgeting 101 course, and so you have to figure it out, and I didn’t take it seriously enough. And when I finally got organized and got my head around it, we were five figures over budget, which meant that we had to get really creative to make that up, and I learned in that moment to never just push that aside, to always make that a priority because it could really be a strategic tool instead of a reactive thing, which was how I was using it.

Kevin Renton:
When I’m not working, I’m…?

Carrie Phillips:
Traveling, love to travel, and I’m already itching to go back. We just love to see different places, different cultures, different experiences. Also a little bit of a foodie, so want to try all the great restaurants while I’m at all these places.

Kevin Renton:
Cool. Where did you go?

Carrie Phillips:
We went to the Czech Republic. We went to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. So lots of good food.

Kevin Renton:
I start my day at…?

Carrie Phillips:
Ooh, 5:50 in the morning. I get up and my latest thing that I’m trying to do, and I’m on about a week-and-a-half kick of it, is having 20 ounces of water while I get ready in the morning, trying to be better about drinking water. And so I am starting my day before I have my morning Diet Coke, I’m going to make myself have a glass or two of water as well.

Kevin Renton:
The secret to students succeeding at my school is…?

Carrie Phillips:
Having the confidence to step foot in the door. At UA Little Rock, we’re really proud to support first-generation generation students, and our efforts are really focused on the whole student. And so for our students, if they’re willing to step foot in the door and willing to show up and try, we’ve got all the things that they need. We go so far as we have social workers embedded in every academic college, so that as students are having challenges that pop up, they can visit and work with somebody who is familiar with the expectations of their college. And I think that really customized, personalized attention makes it so successful for them.

Kevin Renton:
I admire the marketing at…?

Carrie Phillips:
Okay, so I am really on the Pink Playbook right now, and I’m going with Barbie. I think Barbie has nailed it in terms of brand recognition, in terms of really creative partnerships in hitting on this nostalgia that everybody who’s watching this either remembers their experience with Barbie or an experience talking about or playing with their Barbie, and I think it just shows how powerful nostalgia is. And higher ed I think could borrow a few lessons from the Pink Playbook.

Kevin Renton:
No, I totally agree. And we were talking about the article that you wrote before we started this. You just can’t see pink without thinking about the Barbie, and the making that connection and joining the dots has been phenomenal.

Carrie Phillips:
I love it, and I think it’s also really inclusive because it’s not something that you have to have a huge lift to be able to be part of that and to enjoy it. Just throw something pink that’s in your closet and you’re already part of the trend. So it lets everybody, regardless of your socioeconomic background be part, which I think was really smart.

Kevin Renton:
The biggest challenges facing higher education marketers are…?

Carrie Phillips:
I think one is the enrollment cliff that’s really going to impact higher ed and marketing. In particular, what I focused my dissertation on was looking at how regional public universities might use marketing to help mitigate the enrollment cliff. And so that’s something that’s personally really important to me. I also think public perception of what value we provide. I heard somebody the other day talking about the latest Gallup Poll and the idea that we were somewhat as higher education leaders adding to the problem because we were just saying, “This is a problem, this is a problem.” But we weren’t ever saying the great things that our institutions were doing in our local communities.
And so that’s part of that shift that I’ve had in my own mind is, yes, it’s a challenge, but I think we have to also make sure that when we’re talking about things that we’re talking about how strong of a community partner UA Little Rock is, how we are really working at creative ways to keep costs down for students. I think we’ve got to talk about that part of the narrative at the same time.

Kevin Renton:
My favorite social media channel is… And why?

Carrie Phillips:
So personally, I love Insta because there are great food picks and beautiful pictures. I’m a grid girl at heart, so I really love that. Professionally though, I’m here for LinkedIn. I love being able to see what colleagues are doing and be part of their thoughts and share and read articles and connections and find places that people are going and talking. So I really love two.

Kevin Renton:
My biggest professional achievement is…?

Carrie Phillips:
Ooh. Okay, so I would say one is earning my doctorate from Texas Tech last year. I looked at how marketing can mitigate the enrollment cliff. And so I think personally that’s one. And then I would say a few years ago I was at an institution that every time we got everything done, we got it done at the 11th hour. And it wasn’t because we weren’t doing the work and doing a good job. It’s we just couldn’t ever get our head above water. And so I realized we had a capacity issue.
And so I analyzed that issue, really looked at how many hours and we had 2,000 more hours of work than we had capacity to do work. And so it was really then able to have some conversations about what were institutional priorities, how did we create some ways to give some of those things back to departments and really be more strategic as a marketing office, and then also build a case for some additional resources and support. So a multi-tiered approach for that one for sure. So I’m really proud of that work.

Kevin Renton:
What’s working in higher ed right now?

Carrie Phillips:
I think the growth that we’re seeing as marketing having a seat at the table for big conversations. Within the last, I would say five-ish years, we’ve really seen a shift in that marketers are more than just, “Hey come promote this thing,” but we have a lot of value and insights. And so I think that’s what’s working is marketing is being recognized as a value partner for a lot of different conversations.

Kevin Renton:
What’s not working in higher ed right now?

Carrie Phillips:
Silos. So we’ve got to continue to collaborate better on campus. I say it all the time, it’s student experience trumps the org chart. At a prior institution, we mapped our enrollment processes and it went across 17 offices in five divisions. And no wonder a student got lost, no wonder they had problems. That information was so siloed and so disjointed.
And so finding ways to bring those conversations together to get people in the room talking. In that moment, we found there were certain days that we were emailing a student six times from one of those 17 different offices. That’s not helpful for a student. So I say all the time, student experience trumps org charts.

Kevin Renton:
The future of higher education will be…

Carrie Phillips:
Customized. So I think we’re going to see this idea of a traditional in-person degree that starts two times a year, that’s in-person only, that feels really dated and not exactly how everybody wants to work. So I think we’re going to see more emphasis on modality, more emphasis on micro-credentialing and badging across the process, more varied start times, prior learning, internship experiences, adding value to the work. So I think it’s really going to be a much more customized product than it has been in years past.

Kevin Renton:
A key to my success has been…?

Carrie Phillips:
So I have three core values, and one of them is learning. And I think that really has set me up for success because so much of our world changes. Just think about, as you said earlier, ChatGPT, that didn’t even exist 10 months ago. So as marketers, we have to be learning our tools all the time. I think the students are changing, so we have to learn how to adapt and respond, whether it’s Gen z, Gen Alpha, or we’re focusing more on online or adult learners. So what those groups look like. So to be successful, we’ve got to be learning all the time and learning what other divisions are doing so that we can be good partners.

Kevin Renton:
One thing I’ve learned about managing a team is…?

Carrie Phillips:
I started as a peer and then I was named interim and then went on to become Director. And so I went from this role of one day I was everyone’s equal to the next day I was the boss. So that’s really, really hard to start with. So my thing I’ve learned is not to take on all the monkeys, and so let me explain. So people would come to me and say, “Hey, I need help. I sent so-and-so an email, and they didn’t respond.” And I’d be like, “Oh, I’ll handle that,” or, “I need help figuring out how to ask this.” “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll do that.”
So I took everybody else’s monkeys, and that meant what I wasn’t doing is doing the things that I needed to be doing all day. I would be managing these monkeys that were swinging from my credenza and hanging from the light pole in my office. And then I would go home and I’d have hours of work that I needed to do. I would do that work till 11:00 midnight every night. And then my team, the very next morning would have all of these emails of things that they were going to do that they could have worked on all day if I’d asked them at a timely fashion. And I was exhausted. So it was not a good living what you preach about work-life balance. So learn how to coach people to take their own monkeys and manage those things a little better.

Kevin Renton:
The hardest part of my job is…?

Carrie Phillips:
I think the pressure to do all the things to help all the people. There’s simply just not enough time and enough resources to do everything. So having to have those tough conversations about what strategically makes the best sense to help move the needle in terms of growing enrollment, growing perception, growing funds from our advancement side of the house. And those aren’t always fun conversations to have because everybody rightfully so thinks their thing is the most important thing.

Kevin Renton:
I love my job because…

Carrie Phillips:
It’s making a difference. That’s intrinsically really important to me. My goal is we’re doing a good job if we can authentically tell students what our experience is like, what they’re going to see when they come to UA Little Rock, and then hopefully that’s a fit for them. And once they’re here, we’re really working hard to make sure that they succeed. So helping them see what we have to offer and realize that we’re a university that’s really committed to their success because it does change lives.

Kevin Renton:
That’s awesome. Carrie, thanks for spending the time with us.

Carrie Phillips:
Thank you.

Kevin Renton:
If you haven’t read Carrie’s article on Barbie, go into Volt and find the article. It’s fascinating. But yeah, thanks for sharing your ideas and your experience at Arkansas. It’s been great spending time with you.

Carrie Phillips:
Thanks for having me. This was fun.

Kevin Renton

Kevin Renton

Publisher, Volt


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