STATEMENT FROM TERRY FLANNERY, AU VICE PRESIDENT FOR COMMUNICATIONS
New Year’s Resolution: Measure. Refine. Do more of what works.
I’m writing to offer some balance to the piece by Carter Gibson regarding Anderson Cooper’s mention on New Year’s Eve that American University had named him Wonk of the Year in 2013. It was in the context of his annual banter with comedian Kathy Griffin, who challenged Cooper to say how his achievements stacked up to hers in 2013, including her record in the Guinness World Book of Records.
Would we expect the topic to be treated seriously by a comedian? No. But I liked Cooper’s first instinct--saying that it was sweet and he was honored to receive it. In the midst of his giddy response to Griffin’s ribbing, Cooper didn’t give a succinct answer to the question, “What’s a Wonk?” But then he said, “An expert, a specialist, like a policy wonk.” If you want to hear more directly from Cooper about the award and its meaning hear it directly from him: http://www.american.edu/media/news/20131019_Anderson_Cooper_Awarded_Wonk_of_the_Year.cfm
Carter Gibson’s reaction to this publicity is tangled up in his own strong feelings about the University’s brand campaign, KNOW/WONK, which we launched in 2010. However, there’s an entirely different point of view, shared by an impressive and sizeable group. It should not be eclipsed by misinformation and misunderstanding.
President Bill Clinton reacted to being named AU’s 2012 Wonk of the Year in this way: “I love this whole wonk deal. I figured people would want a president who actually knew something.”
Ezra Klein, Washington Post journalist and prolific writer of Wonkblog, revels in the term. He embodies a smart passionate expert who uses deep knowledge about a range of important subjects to inspire meaningful change. He knows subjects like economics and policy backwards and forwards. The origin of this distinctively Washington term is KNOW spelled backwards.
Ask the AU community. We surveyed them in 2013. More than 4,100 students and 3,500 alumni responded along with faculty, staff and parents. Majorities of all of these groups think the university’s reputation has improved in the last three years, and their response is correlated with their reaction to the wonk campaign. Those who think AU’s image has improved are also likely to say that the wonk campaign has had a positive effect.
The largest share of grad students (53%), undergrads (40%) and alumni (42%) who think the wonk campaign ads influence the university’s image and reputation say the effect is positive or very positive. A quarter of these audiences say the effect is neutral—a common response to a question about the effect of advertising on perceptions. The rest--a minority, though larger than we would like—think the effect is negative. But, when we analyze what’s driving that perception, an important answer lies in how long one has been at the institution. Those at AU before the campaign launched in 2010 are more likely to be negative. Those who arrived after are likely to be positive. The reason is change, not uncommon when an organization embarks on a branding effort.
These survey results follow other encouraging results. Since 2009, AU gained ground against direct competitors in perceptions of awareness and quality among prospective students. Perceptions of AU’s academic quality increased significantly among graduate students. The campaign in Nationals Park over the last two years has resulted in a sizable increase in awareness of AU as a top notch university among fans, compared with non-fans. It’s been widely embraced by prospective students and had an impact on record Early Decision applicants. For the last two years, majorities of freshmen say AU is their first choice institution. Alumni engagement has increased 55% since the campaign launched.
Finally, all of this is on top of a host of awards—like an Emmy for our television spot, ADDYs (from the American Advertising Federation), and awards from a host of professional associations who focus on higher education and non-profit marketing.
Carter Gibson shares the view of some students and alumni. He doesn’t like the term. He’s entitled to his opinion—he loves his alma mater and wants it to succeed. But he’s not entitled to his own facts. The brand strategy was developed over a year that included hundreds of interviews and thousands of surveys in 2009, followed by rigorous creative testing and regular input from campus and board advisory groups. It has been professionally and methodically developed, as required in the university’s strategic plan, and is just as methodically measured.
Results in this realm take time to fully develop. Perceptions take time to change. In the wake of our latest research, we’ve committed to keep the strengths of the campaign, refine the campaign and find ways to increase adoption among those who don’t love it yet. In another two years, we’ll take another measure and see where we are.
As Tom Peters once said: Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works.