FEATURE : A conversation with Judy Phair: communicator, marketer, innovator

How did you get started in higher education?
“I came in through the back door. I was a reporter and moved because my spouse’s job moved. We went from Chicago to Cincinnati, Ohio. I looked for a reporting job there and took a job with University of Cincinnati instead. It seemed more interesting, so I took it. I was a public information officer—PIO. Basically the job was similar to a newspaper reporter. There were departments you were charged with covering. It was a lot of fun. I had a wonderful time learning about so many areas. I worked with students as well, and it was very exciting to learn so much that stretched my communications skills. I liked the stimulation of the academic setting and was intrigued by the multiple constituencies that needed tailored messages. There was a team of about five writers and news gatherers that drew a picture of the university for the outside world.

Where are you currently working?
“I’m currently at the Graduate Management Admission Council, the international association of graduate admissions. We also orchestrate the GMAT. GMAC was founded in 1953 by deans to administer their own tests. I have been there three years, and my role is to head the communications department, which includes PR, print, and electronic communications. We are getting into social media, and every media release includes Twitter and Facebook. We also revamped our website, blogging, and Facebook pages for our conferences, and are looking at a host of other things.

“India and China are big markets for us. The growth of international students who are interested in business is huge, especially in graduate management.

How is educational marketing different, or is it?
“I think the major difference between an airline and a university is the audience. The neat thing is the diversity of the audience and the different needs. Students, faculty, parents, alumni, state legislators, the federal government, etc., are all part of the audience. And now we have to deal with international audiences. There are also many differences in the programs within the university. All need plans. It requires a lot of sensitivity to the multiple audiences who will see and react to the messages.

How has educational marketing changed?
“The big change has been the advent of the Internet, now with viral marketing, 24/7 news, and the need to get information out quickly—ready or not. A minor incident ends up on YouTube and becomes a crisis. Information is seen by more than the targeted audience. You have to know the implications of the message as it is seen by every audience. Your message will end up all over the world. Everything is everywhere.

“Social media has given us incredible ways to get the message out. It’s opened ways to reach people that we have not had before.

“The age of students forces us to constantly change and respond. Things can be out of date or out of style in six months.

What are the current marketing challenges?
“This is a very volatile market. You also don’t know how well social media is working. Twitter is in vogue right now, but it may be on its way out. Technology is hard to measure and know how effective it will be. This makes it time-intensive and expensive.

“Another challenge is the economy. It has had an enormous impact and will for some time to come. The jobs that have been lost will be a while in coming back. That poses challenges in the way to implement new needs. Customer care is critical, but the resources aren’t there.

“The challenge to be authentic and transparent is critical. You won’t be able to communicate as effectively if you are not authentic and transparent. Young people have lived in this high-pace environment their whole lives. They don’t want to be over marketed to. You have to be very responsive.

“The customization of marketing is expected. What does the audience want to know and how do they want to get that information? This drives everything. They want what works for them. It’s consumer driven.

What are the rewards?
“I think it’s more exciting than ever to be in educational marketing. There are all kinds of new challenges, but the opportunities are just incredible. Education is changing in ways I never thought it would change. There are a lot of new models, new modes of education, new ways of teaching, and lots more ahead. We need to prepare for the unexpected and learn how to be a jump ahead of everything.

“All this points to what I’ve believed all along, that research is more important than ever and needs to be done more frequently than ever. If you have research in place you can be ahead of the changes.”

Judy Phair is a public relations executive with extensive experience in marketing, media relations, fund raising, legislative relations, and communications. As vice president, communications, for the GMAC, Judy leads the Council’s worldwide strategic communications planning and oversees all marketing, advertising, media relations, and publications activities. Previously, she was vice president for public affairs at the Council on Competitiveness, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based association of corporate chief executives, university presidents, and labor leaders working together to set a national agenda for U.S. leadership in global markets, technological innovation, and education. She has also served as vice president for institutional advancement at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute, assistant dean of external relations at Johns Hopkins University, and vice president for public relations at Goucher College.