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Intergenerational Mentorship Is Key to Higher Ed Communications

While I travel to the other side of the planet to speak at a conference, please enjoy this guest blog entry from Rebecca “Becca” Ramspott. I adore working with and learning from her on the social media front. Frostburg State is lucky to claim her as their own! Please follow her: @beccaramspott  

Creative-Commons-licensed photo by DonkeyHotey.
If you work in communications for higher education, chances are you’ve experienced something that’s the mental equivalent of whiplash from all the changes that have happened over the past 10 years, particularly the explosive growth of all things digital. Facebook rolling out everything from Timeline to editable comments to subscriptions for journalists. Presidents and professors suddenly teaching and sharing ideas on Twitter. The relentless evolution of all things mobile.
In addition to these developments, we’ve also got different generations all crowded together in the higher ed workplace: Baby Boomers who are disappointed their retirement got wiped out by the recession, 30-somethings who are up to their ears in debt and hungry for advancement, endlessly energetic, collaborative Millennials equally eager for professional development. It’s a weird mix in which tensions sometimes get high and morale can get low, especially if turf wars ensue as we cling to what we know, and brace ourselves for the new communication developments hitting us at lightning speed.
But there is a strategy that can help us persevere, a way we can continue growing our colleges and universities, preserve the autonomy of our hard-working senior employees and hold onto our best young professionals: intergenerational mentorship. As Gloria Steinem once said, We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.”
Here are some ideas for how we can all ride out these waves of change together in ways that ensure we’re continuing to have meaningful conversations about our colleges and universities online and in-person:

  • Be open to learning up as well as down the generational food chain. If you don’t understand some new area of communications that may be relevant to what your university is trying to accomplish, be open to scheduling a learning opportunity to become more familiar with it. Keep it informal and easygoing, like a lunch where someone gives everyone a crash course on how to install Instagram, or how to use shortcuts on iPads. And don’t just limit it to people in your immediate area, either. Making it a regular practice to talk to, say, college and high students about digital communications and online communities they’re interested in to see where things might be headed. And it goes both ways … younger professionals may need guidance on email etiquette or how to keep the personal separate from the professional on their individual social media sites. We’re all learning together.


  • Give younger professionals opportunities to be creative, grow their skills and be recognized. Make room in your budgets to send younger colleagues who are helping develop new communication initiatives to conferences. When they build a particularly successful project and bring it to fruition, take the time to acknowledge it. Regular feedback is key, particularly the positive kind. Otherwise they won’t feel challenged or valued and jump ship. And it goes without saying that this must happen alongside the recognition and support of more senior staff members, of course.


  • Change is the only constant in digital communications and being flexible and nimble is key to evolving your communications strategy. The visual immediacy of mobile devices and photo- and video-editing apps make it so that more and more people can be good storytellers for our institutions. Fast, fun and off-the-cuff videos and in-the-moment snapshots crowdsourced from students, alumni and other constituents are increasingly supplementing polished, more time-intensive efforts we’ve traditionally produced ourselves. It’s helpful to reassure our staff that their talents are valued and necessary for many meaningful projects, but that they may not need to micromanage every visual digital message out there. For example, it might be smarter to put together a Facebook cover photo album for your constituents (something relatively fast, easy and sharable) than it would be for communications staff to painstakingly create customized landing pages for Facebook communities. Every time we invest in some Facebook feature, we have to remember that feature may become irrelevant in a few months, a few days, even, as Facebook switches up its strategy for users.


  • Structure your communications team so it makes the best use of individuals’ greatest strengths. It can be very intimidating for a senior media relations person when all of a sudden higher education reporters are pitching queries for sources on Twitter and Facebook, and that person may not have the time or interest to master the informative chatter those social media demand. That’s when it might be a good idea to reassign some of these tasks to another individual who has a better grasp on these digital communities. Has your college of university designated a social-media-savvy staff member—or better yet, a team of campus-wide representatives from key areas where communications matter—to spearhead your school’s social media initiatives? If not, definitely make that happen ASAP!

What are you doing to support and celebrate the talent and hard work of people of all ages at your institution and stay current with digital communications? I’d love to learn and hear from you … share your thoughts in the comments below.