Vice Chancellor Discusses Newly Formed Division of Communications
USAC recently welcomed Steve Ertel, vice chancellor for communications, to speak at its May meeting. Last year, Chancellor Zeppos identified the need to pull communications out of the Division of Public Affairs and recruited Ertel to champion the restructure. A plan was devised to elevate and modernize communications for Vanderbilt and ensure that information shared across its various channels is reflective of the university’s core mission. During the presentation, Ertel explained his new communications strategy for the university, its overarching vision and the accomplishments his department has made thus far.
Ertel began the presentation by observing that many communications functions across various industries were built during the 1980’s and 90’s when communication strategies were highly reactive, one-way and static. This method of communication did not encourage audience engagement with brands. Communications was insular and “we often stayed inside boundaries that were artificially created.” Ertel and his team have been working to build on the organic growth of Vanderbilt’s communications function to establish a modern, values-based communications strategy and approach. “We want to become increasingly more proactive and intentional and think of communications as a conversation between the university and all of its stakeholders.” He and his team are developing a plan that aligns with the core mission of the university, leverages communications across several channels and is data-driven and dynamic.
The vision of the Division of Communications is to develop and execute strategies that inform, engage and inspire others to participate in Vanderbilt’s global academic and research mission. To meet the goals of this vision, the division has been restructured into five areas — each with a unique purpose:
- University Relations — to advance the university’s priorities and engage internal audiences: faculty, staff, students, alumni, donors and parents.
- Strategic Communications — to protect and enhance the university’s local, national and global reputation and position the university as one of the world’s leading academic research institutions.
- Digital Strategies — to provide a data-driven digital communications strategy in order to elevate our digital presence.
- Marketing Solutions — to provide cross-platform materials in order to support strategic priorities of key university partners and to express the Vanderbilt brand through visual and written media.
- Brand Engagement and Governance — to promote Vanderbilt’s brand through strategic partnerships, products and services.
Although much of this work was already happening, the division was restructured to better clarify the responsibilities of each team and establish a new governance models that would integrate functions across the division. Ertel explained that his team is constantly working to address important questions, like:
- What is the Vanderbilt brand, how is it distinctive and are we maximizing its value?
- How can we empower more people to create and tell the story?
- How can we expand perceptions of who we are and the value we bring to society?
- What are the narratives outside of our control that are holding us back?
At the end of the presentation, Ertel answered several questions from council members:
What did you find was the most surprising thing you encountered in this new role?
Ertel observed that the way that faculty operate in higher education is different from what he had been used to and that some of the co-benefits of working with them were not being realized. “One of the fun things I did was to co-chair the chancellor’s Enhancing Faculty Voices in the Public Sphere committee with Professor Ganesh Sitaraman.” The purpose of the committee was to determine how to better support and encourage faculty to engage in public discourse. “One of our primary goals is to bring visibility to our amazing faculty and their research. We want to draw attention to their work to attract funding, inspire new collaborations and showcase the value of their work to society.” As an example, he observed that Vanderbilt has prominent cyber security experts, such as Dean Eric Johnson, whose expertise is relevant to major related news events. “As we share the research and expertise of our faculty, Vanderbilt is seen as a key player. As we recruit new faculty, they may see an article about Dean Johnson in The Financial Times and want to work with him. There are many co-benefits from partnership between faculty and the Division of Communications.”
How did the separation from the Vanderbilt University Medical Center impact communications?
Ertel pointed out that VU and VUMC are one brand — Vanderbilt — and that news about one organization can affect the reputation of the other. Consequently, the two work closely together. As part of the Service Letter Agreement (SLA) with VUMC, VUMC News and Communications supports communications efforts for the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing while the university’s Division of Communications continues to support VUMC in other areas, such as photography and design and through the university’s broadcast studio, VUStar. Ertel also pointed out that both institutions recognize that our strategies, resources and approaches to communication naturally differ. “We need to leverage one another’s strengths and capacities,” he added.
How are you working with the Nashville community to rebrand Vanderbilt and get their buy-in?
“The Community, Neighborhood and Government Relations team under Nathan Green, vice chancellor for public affairs, are the primary stewards of the relationship between Vanderbilt and the Nashville community. I have worked alongside him on local issues affecting the university. We also engage the Nashville community with efforts that are open to the public, like the Chancellor Lecture Series .” Ertel also said that his own division is constantly thinking about ways that Vanderbilt can leverage and more deeply connect with Nashville, including through new tactics such as new advertising at the airport. “I think that Nashville’s rise has been a big contributor to Vanderbilt’s rise.”
Vanderbilt is a big ship. What has been your biggest challenge when making change at Vanderbilt?
“It actually hasn’t been as hard as I imagined. There has been such an appetite for change. I’m encouraged at how collaborative and supportive Chancellor Zeppos’ senior leadership team has been with everything we are trying to do. The most important thing that we have done in the past year is build great partnerships across the university.” Ertel pointed out that trying to change something that has been working one way for a long time requires a certain strategy. His current strategy is to start with a phased approach, while seizing low-hanging fruit and prioritizing the Chancellor’s vision.
What kinds of big plans are you working on?
“We are in the midst of trying to align our strategic plan with the seasonal flow of the academic calendar,” Ertel said. He is also focused on presenting research, leveraging the strength of Vanderbilt and pushing back on some of the policies in Washington that threaten to undermine higher education. “Some of our recent efforts that were a highlight included the public launch of the residential college system, the campaign to recognize Perry Wallace and the 50th anniversary of the integration of Vanderbilt Athletics and SEC basketball, and our collaboration with external stakeholders, policymakers and opinion leaders on tax reform. We have a lot of ideas that we are cooking up and are excited about.”
What are your thoughts on handling internal communication breakdowns at the university?
Ertel pointed out that, many times, when there is a communication breakdown it is at the local level so he wants to bolster local communication channels. “There’s always a proximity issue. If it’s not 2 feet in front of my face, it didn’t happen, and that is just a reality everywhere,” he said. “We need to play in the sandbox where people are and not expect them to come to our sandbox. We have to find more places to infuse our information.”
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