Turning Words Into Actions: The Second Half of Our BLM Panel Discussion

Posted: July 30, 2020

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Read time: 8 minutes

The journey toward racial equality is not a one-time marketing trend. It’s a long march. Beyond soapbox rhetoric and social media hashtags, an initiative of this historic scale calls for an ongoing commitment.

In last month’s edition of EduInsights, we picked the brains of our top higher ed marketing consultants for their honest thoughts and perspectives on Black Lives Matter and its implications for higher education. Our panel discussion explored several ways institutions of higher learning can break the silence from a marketing standpoint and lead the way as beacons of real, societal change. 

By now, it’s clear that the murder of George Floyd was not just one of countless routine atrocities against the Black community. It was a tipping point. As we move forward through the enduring unrest into a school year riddled with uncertainty, the conversation on police brutality and race will continue to evolve and crescendo – especially on college campuses where a new generation of thinkers and leaders are spreading their wings.

This month, our pro-BLM panelists sound off on the next series of questions that the higher education community may be asking: 

Question #3

Towards the end of the last school year, BLM sparked widespread student activism and fueled on-campus protests at colleges and universities across the country, putting pressure on institutions to sever ties with local law enforcement agencies, reevaluate hiring and enrollment practices, diversify student populations and expand curriculums to include programs that educate students on issues of racial inequality and oppression. Meanwhile, some institutions have assumed a race-neutral stance. Given the high priority that prospective and current students have placed on BLM activism by making it an un-ignorable, on-campus issue, what can schools do to make BLM a part of their story and amplify students’ voices? 

Jasmine Matthews, Marketing Strategist

It will take more than a few social media posts to amplify the voices of often underrepresented and unheard groups. Again, it’s not enough just to post about inclusion – institutions will really need to consider how they are promoting equity internally and how they’re communicating that out to their students.

To truly make movements like Black Lives Matter a part of the fabric of their story, institutions need to address the systemic issues within their own walls, head-on. It’s no secret that racial equity has been an existing conversation, now heightened by our current climate. Black students have often felt “othered,” lacking the same representation, support and opportunity as their counterparts.

I echo the sentiments from a recent article I read:

If schools are really serious about addressing anti-Black racism beyond this mainstream moment, then there will have to be a much greater investment in different policies, practices and beliefs when the fervor dissipates.

edsource.org

Holly Simons, VP of Integrated Strategy

Most university presidents believe that diversity should still be an admissions consideration. (See Inside Higher Ed 2019 survey of college presidents for details.) Many campuses consider race, ethnicity, culture and the ability to provide leadership around diversity, equity and inclusion, as positive factors in admission.

Campuses need to message around the steps they’re taking to provide access to black, indigenous and students of color.

Katy Campbell, Associate Director of Account Leadership

Do what you do best: educate, teach and foster discussion.

Specific to messaging, higher ed marketers must take both organic and paid media strategies into consideration. If organic channels are showing support for the BLM movement, but they have not set up proper exclusions in their paid ad set up, users could perceive them as disingenuous, tone-deaf and hypocritical.  

Do what you do best: educate, teach and foster discussion. Marketing and Communications can have a strong hand in hosting, facilitating and spreading that knowledge.

Dana Cruikshank, Director of Strategic Partnerships

First and foremost, avoid tokenism.

This isn’t the time to trot out a particular student of color and say, “See, minority students can do just fine here!”

Many institutions focus on the strength of their community, their alumni networks, and so on.

Show that you are willing to make these aspects of your community as inclusive as possible and open to hearing from a diverse group of voices.

Matt Walters, VP of Client Services

If you’ll pardon the cliché, branding is about the walk as much as the talk. Schools that want to make BLM “part of their story” and to support and amplify students’ voices should focus on seizing this moment in our world as an experience-defining opportunity for students.

Imagine if there were organized, cross-institutional efforts to actively engage with students and to help them engage with this movement. Schools could: 

  • Sponsor a visiting authors’ reading club, with book club discussions of titles by black and minority authors punctuated by monthly Zoom talks with the authors.
  • Make seminar or independent study (for credit) courses available on racial justice, nonviolent protest, the Civil Rights movement, African-American literature, post-colonial politics, etc.
  • Plan and facilitate nonviolent protest outings to your state capitol or even to Washington D.C., and cover students’ costs to participate (assuming safe options become available this year due to COVID-19).
  • Hold poetry slams, art shows or other forums to showcase students’ work inspired by the BLM movement and/or other social justice related experiences and issues.
  • Invite national, state or local politicians, lobbyists or socially engaged organizations to offer talks on effective political action.
  • Faith-based institutions could take on the idea of racial reconciliation from a theological perspective as its overarching theme for the full year’s worth of chapel classes.

The list goes on. 

Focus on seizing this moment in our world as an experience-defining opportunity for students.

Whether students are on campus or learning remotely this fall, there are unlimited possibilities for the conscious, intentional institution to capitalize on this tremendous opportunity to do what higher education should be all about anyway – engaging students with a diversity of ideas and perspectives in formative, structured and unstructured ways that foster their growth as people.

Doing so will be real, genuine and authentic, and the “messaging” takes care of itself, because promoting things you’re really doing with and for your students is authentic marketing. 

Question #4

Along with COVID-19, the insurrectional unrest following the murder of George Floyd has proven to be one of the most transformative series of events in modern history. How might the socioeconomic aftermath of this crisis impact prospective students’ enrollment decisions in the upcoming fall recruitment season?  

Dana Cruikshank, Director of Strategic Partnerships

This is going to be a challenging, make-or-break decade for higher ed. Expect declining state support, and students and families too tapped out to make up the difference in tuition hikes or loans. But, institutions that transform their approach and adapt to the times can, and will, make themselves even more relevant to those who need them most. 

Holly Simons, VP of Integrated Strategy

Higher education represents both hope for continued social justice revolution and is a key path for the country to climb out of the current economic realities on personal, community-wide and global levels.

Campuses will be investing in financial aid advocacy at all levels and will double down on price lowering and cost control. Higher education needs to explore new ways to educate our audiences on how they can advocate for financial aid.

Higher education represents hope for continued social justice revolution.

Matt Walters, VP of Client Services

There has been a cost crisis in higher ed brewing for years, and right now, it’s frankly been overshadowed by the pressing urgency of COVID-19, the BLM movement and even the coming election.

Any extended downturns in the market and the economy that might result from these trends will quickly bring that problem back into sharp relief, even at a moment when COVID-19 is already tightening schools’ purses to a suffocating degree. Even so, schools simply have to find ways to lower costs for students. I think they’ll have to attack it on both sides of the ledger, by finding more operational efficiencies but also through better, more aggressive fundraising for student scholarships.  


Schools simply have to find ways to lower costs for students.

This may sound harsh, but lean times are often good opportunities to find more permanent efficiencies and to reset fiscal baselines. That’s true for individual families and it’s true for institutions as well. On the other side, now is a perfect time to sharpen cases for support for scholarship grants and gifts – in particular, scholarship gifts for minority and underrepresented students of color.

People still believe higher education can be transformational. Schools need to take responsibility for the price bloating that’s pricing students out of the market, in particular students from underrepresented communities.

Jasmine Matthews, Marketing Strategist

Beyond financial aid, I think that students, as well as their influencers, are going to be more conscious about an institution’s commitment to prioritizing their well-being – whether that’s transparency about how the school will be implementing preventative measures for COVID-19 or understanding the school’s commitment to supporting and serving students of diverse backgrounds. 

Many of our clients have voiced the importance of over communication, transparency and support/wellness checks to both the current and prospective student. That expectation isn’t going to subdued any time soon.

Students, as well as their influencers, are going to be more conscious about an institution’s commitment to prioritizing their well-being.

Let’s Keep Talking

The Black Lives Matter conversation is far from over.

Leave us a comment to let us know your take on the issue. And feel free to reach out to us to discuss ways we can help your institution connect with your audiences and support Black Lives Matter through branding, creative and messaging approaches that reflect your actions and achieve your goals. 

VisionPoint Marketing stands with the Black community in vocal opposition to police brutality and all forms of systemic racism and injustice.

Photo credit: News & Observer, downtown Raleigh NC.