Communication Planning: Start By Looking in the Mirror

shutterstock_111876380A CASE STUDY

Are you happy with what you see when you look in the mirror?

When I started working on the strategic communication and marketing plan for research at Georgia Tech, my first goal was to fully understand our internal audience. It’s really the most important audience, because without the support of your own people – any communication you do is bound to fail.

When I started in my current position, we were in the second year of a brand new university research strategy. It was focused on ‘creating transformative opportunities, strengthening collaborative partnerships and maximizing economic and societal impact.’ It also included an increased focus on industry research, which required a re-alignment of vision and strategy, culture and beliefs, processes, plans, and people. The senior leadership had great vision, but no strategic way to communicate the changes needed to achieve it. This was made worse by the general nature of research universities, filled with fiercely independent people who are willing to support institutional change efforts …as long as they see a personal benefit.

Understanding that effective communication would only happen if we understood the (mis)perceptions and needs of our own people, we started by conducting internal market research.

We Wanted To…

  1. Establish baseline data on faculty and staff perceptions of Georgia Tech’s research enterprise;
  1. Build a foundation for additional comparative perceptions research with external audiences (industry);
  1. Guide leadership, and communicators, in speaking with ‘one voice’ regarding Georgia Tech’s research activities;
  1. Identify opportunities to enhance/refine our internal communication activities.

How Did We Do It?

Setting the Stage: Before diving into the formal research, we reviewed all prior studies. This included reading reports from advisory boards, external peer review teams, and others. We were able to figure out what we knew and – more importantly – what we didn’t know about employee perceptions. The information also helped us craft relevant questions for our internal survey.

Developing the Tool & Identifying the Audience: We created the survey ourselves, tested it with a small group of faculty and refined it before it was released. Of the 1,161 (sample size) faculty who received the survey, 459 responded – yielding a response rate of around 40%. This was about 20% higher than the usual response rate for internal surveys at Georgia Tech.

Quick Action: We summarized the results and immediately briefed the Executive Vice President for Research (EVPR) – who insisted on providing a quick response to everyone who took part. The intent was to thank them for participating, and quickly share what we learned. It was also an opportunity to begin clarifying some of the misconceptions that were identified through the survey. As it turned out, we received a number of responses (to the response) – thanking us for sharing the survey results.

Sharing Details, Influencing Policy: We wanted everyone to benefit from the results, and we began by sharing them with Georgia Tech’s research leadership team. The full report was also provided to a Georgia Tech Industry Task Force, which was refining policies and procedures related to the university’s industry research relationships. The executive summary and excerpts from the full report were also shared with the Georgia Tech Faculty Incentives Task Force, which was identifying ways to incentivize faculty to engage in industry-focused research. The results were then briefed to the Associate Deans of Research, Directors of our Interdisciplinary Research Institutes, Georgia Tech’s Academic and Research Communicators Councils, Georgia Tech’s Institute (Central) Communications Office and the economic development arm of Georgia Tech – the Enterprise Innovation Institute.


Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology

Modifying the Message: The survey revealed areas in which our messaging needed to be refined so that people would better understand the new industry-focused research strategy. One big problem was that faculty thought Georgia Tech was focusing on industry research at the expense of basic/fundamental research. This wasn’t the case, but you wouldn’t have known it from the less-than-clear communication that had taken place. This led to the development of the “DAD” philosophy. The acronym stands for Discover, Apply and Deploy, and it provided us with a new way to talk about research – as a cycle. This helped people see where they fit in while preventing others from feeling left out. In this framework, ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ research is the ‘discovery’ that’s then ‘applied’ to solve real-world problems, and is then ‘deployed’ to the market where it can have a true impact on the world. This new message became the foundation of a series of town hall meetings held across the campus. We also worked it into many of our other internal communication vehicles.

Setting the Record Straight: We wrote a series of Q&A-style articles for Georgia Tech’s employee newsletter. The series began with a 2-part piece from the Executive Vice President for Research, which directly addressed the issues identified through the survey. They were followed by 5 additional Q&As with other research leaders, who echoed our core messages and directly addressed other concerns. Let’s be honest, though – changing perception requires sustained communication over a long period of time. And we work on it every day.

Using the Data: To be sure the survey results would continue to be of value, modifications were made to the content of Georgia Tech’s research website. The results also became the foundation of Georgia Tech’s internal communication plan for research and sparked the development of new strategic communications plans for Georgia Tech’s nine Interdisciplinary Research Institutes.

Helping Others: Finally, the results contributed to the development of several scholarly papers that will add to the broader body of professional knowledge, and provide value to other research organizations which may be trying to put a new strategy in place.

What Followed?

We completed two phases of external audience research: 1) 25 in-depth interviews with high-level executives in industries important to Georgia Tech – with whom we had existing relationships, and 2) 25 in-depth interviews with companies that have limited interaction with Georgia Tech. The results of each were incorporated into the overall Strategic Communication and Marketing Plan for Research at Georgia Tech. They also provided information we’re using to refresh the content on our research web pages.

We’re also starting to see more faculty engaging in industry research, industry work (as a percentage of our total portfolio) is increasing and a number of major companies have established innovation centers adjacent to campus. These are indicators of good things to come, but we all know that real culture change takes a long time…as many things do in academia.

I encourage you to share your own experiences in the comments.



2 thoughts on “Communication Planning: Start By Looking in the Mirror

  1. Thanks for sharing – a very interesting read and also a useful protocol for anyone working in strategic communication within the academia; there is so much work experience buried in these 1.100 words!

    Some questions:
    1. How much time did all this take?
    2. Is the Discover–Apply–Deploy model your own creation? I think it is excellent!
    3. If you could rewind the process, is there something that you would have done differently?


    • Thanks for the comment Olle.

      The project took about 4 months – from survey development to reporting on the results. Of course, the internal communication continues to happen every day.

      I wish I could full credit for the model. Our research inspired it. We discussed, with our EVPR, the need for clarifying the role of basic research in our strategy. I’m luck to work with him, because he’s a visionary – and very creative. The model was his creation based on our input. We then helped communicate it.

      If I could do it again, I would have found a way to create a multimedia component to communicate and clarify the strategy. I’d use video, maybe animation. It would be a completely different way to communicate something complex to our internal audience. At the time we didn’t have the in-house resources we have now.

      Again, thanks for your comment – and your excellent questions.



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