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Consultant Isn't a Dirty Word

When I was younger, I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. I’m not entirely sure why, but it may have been because I felt it was a job you could describe with one word and most people would have a general understanding of what that job entailed.
Instead of following that career path (much to my mother’s dismay), I opted for a career spent mostly in higher education—and for jobs that weren’t easily explained. What does a deputy chief of staff do? How does an assistant director of public affairs fill her days?
In my current role, I find it easiest to boil my job down to “PR consultant for colleges and universities.” Because people are much more aware of and savvy about communications these days, I find that most people I talk to understand the basics of my job. And that’s great. But what people still struggle to comprehend is when and why PR consultants are hired by institutions.
The most common misperception is that consultants are hired because the internal team is weak, is inappropriately staffed or is not trusted. “If they just hired the right people, they wouldn’t need to hire you, right?” is often how it’s phrased.
What bothers me most about that approach is that it assumes a negative—consultants are brought in to “fix” something that isn’t working—and reflects a bias against consultants that I don’t think serves our institutions or consultants well.
There are any number of reasons to hire communications consultants. We hear most often from clients who want to build on the great success their on-campus teams are having with local, regional and statewide press by undertaking a national push. We also work with clients that need support in a crisis situation because the on-campus team still has to do their day-to-day jobs during times of duress. And there are clients who hire us to help supplement the skills of their team, to mentor newer staff or to build capacity. But I can’t imagine any effective head of communications looking at their team, seeing weakness, and deciding the way to address it is to hire consultants.
Consultants have long gotten a bad rap and that perspective is still very much alive in a day and age when campus communicators are no longer focused just on media relations and internal communications but often also oversee social media, the website (or websites!), crisis communication, executive speechwriting, brand management, issues management, publications and video production. It is unrealistic to expect the level of expertise that is necessary to advance the image and reputation of an institution from just one person or even their team. And it is especially unrealistic as budgets are cut and resources, including professional development, dwindle.
Seeking expertise outside of the communications shop is not an admission of defeat, but instead a smart and strategic marshaling of all resources to best serve the institution. I’ve written before about working successfully with consultants, and I hope that together these two posts will help on-campus colleagues make the case for how a consulting partnership can strengthen their team and also their institution.