Making communication more strategic
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Joe Brennan, a Detroit native and former associate vice president for university communications at SUNY-Buffalo, began work as the University of Iowa’s vice president for strategic communication on Aug. 31.
In his role as communicator-in-chief, Brennan is responsible for steering consistent and successful messaging from University Communication and Marketing in partnership with the university’s 11 colleges and many other communication offices. He also provides executive oversight for the university’s Hancher performing arts program.
Brennan and his wife, Marianna (his grad school sweetheart), have been married for 25 years and have two children, Eric, 19, and Rosalie, 13.
What personally and professionally attracted you to this position?
The extraordinary quality of the University of Iowa, the ability to work with some very talented people here on the staff, and the community. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful town.
You’ve been on the job for just over a month, but what excites you about the year ahead and what do you see as challenges?
I thought this was a very good university walking in the door. Every day I learn another aspect of the institution, and I continue to be incredibly impressed. I’ve gotten an incredibly warm welcome, and I’m so excited about my colleagues here in strategic communication. They’re doing fabulous work. One of the challenges for me will be learning the place. This is a large, complex institution, and we have to help tell the institutional story clearly and proactively. Not let people outside the campus define us, but rather help them understand better who we are and what makes this place wonderful.
What makes communication strategic?
I think at its heart strategic means being purposeful, making very conscious choices about where we put our time and energy. Our job is to help the University of Iowa build understanding and deepen trust with all of its key publics, internal and external, on campus and off campus. To do that, we have to create a strategic plan that aligns communication with the institution’s highest needs, its top priorities. And then we execute that plan. If we do that well, at the end of the day, we’ve built the good will and the understanding of the relationships that enable the University of Iowa to carry out its mission of education, research, and service.
The media and communication landscape continues to change dramatically, with traditional outlets like newspapers cutting personnel (in September, for instance, the Salt Lake Tribune announced a 20 percent cut in its staff). At the same time, it seems every week there’s some new social media app, as well as the “granddaddies” Facebook and Twitter. How do you see that impacting how the University of Iowa communicates with its internal and external audiences?
We are seeing significant disruptive change taking place in the world of the media. Technology has driven this largely and destabilized the old business models that newspapers, TV, and radio used to be successful for much of the 20th century. I think it presents certain challenges and certain opportunities.
One of the challenges is that audiences are everywhere now. We no longer have the ability to reliably reach large groups of people using a small number of well-established channels. I think the year I was born, you could reach a big proportion of adult Americans through the three evening newscasts on national networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS. Today, we literally have 500 channels. So the audiences have become fragmented.
Would you say the public also has a greater expectation today that information will be provided instantaneously?
We used to talk about a 24-hour news cycle, as our example of how fast it’s gotten. Now it’s more like a 24-second news cycle. And that’s because everyone’s got some device in his or her pocket or on the desktop that lets ordinary people publish information to the rest of the word. I think about the incident a few years ago when the US Airways Captain "Sully" Sullenberger’s jet ran into a flock of geese and lost power, forcing him to land in the Hudson River. The world found out about it because a man on the Staten Island Ferry took out his smartphone, snapped a picture, and Tweeted it. Within moments, that got passed along virally. It was a good 10 minutes before any of New York City’s television and news stations could chopper over to the scene and start taking pictures.
Now it wasn’t too long ago when getting your statement out within the first hour of a major incident like that was considered gold standard. So the pace has clearly picked up.
So what does that mean for professional communicators?
One, we have to be comfortable reaching our audiences in a variety of channels that include social media and the web and email and traditional media, which is still reaching people. Sometimes we even use good old-fashioned face-to-face communication, or paper.
Second, I think we have to be cognizant of the fact that communication is much less one-way and much more a many-to-many model, and so we’re moving from pushing a message down a channel toward fostering a conversation between our organizations and our audiences.
Third, I think that the good old building blocks of effective communication are still true. I’m talking about principles like keeping the message simple, framing it in ways that are relevant to the audience, and repeating the message.
We also need to continually ask for feedback so we know that what we intended to deliver was actually perceived accurately.
You’ve got a Ph.D. in English, and you’ve landed in a UNESCO City of Literature. Who are some of your favorite authors? And more important, are you—like many folks in Iowa City—working secretly on the next Great American Novel?
(Laughs) I’m not working on any novels or plays. I think all my time goes into job, family, and a couple of outside interests. That said, it’s fabulous to be surrounded by writers, and I love to read.
My dissertation was on the influence of Thomas Carlyle (Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian, and teacher during the Victorian era) on Charles Dickens. So I continue an appreciation for Victorian British literature. Part of what drew me to that time period is the way that those writers are engaged in reflecting on, reacting to, and helping to shape the social world around them.
I read broadly and eclectically. I like historic fiction. I’ve enjoyed Hillary Mantel’s books on the Tudor court, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, partly because I think she brings the period to life nicely and partly because she’s just a great storyteller. I’ve also enjoyed Mark Helprin’s newest novel, In Sunshine and in Shadow, because he’s an incredible stylist. And I’m just dazzled by some of the sentences in that book. I will confess to a kind of guilty pleasure in Scandinavian crime fiction, too. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, of course, and I like Jo Nesbø's books a lot. There’s always a surprising plot twist.
On my bedside table I have a stack of Iowa Writers’ Workshop authors. At the very top of the stack right now is Marilynne Robinson. I’m looking forward to reading my way through a lot of our Iowa writers to get me more deeply attached to the university. I think one could do worse than spend the rest of your life reading those writers.
I understand you’re a cycling enthusiast. Tell me about that, and what’s your most memorable cycling experience?
There’s a moment when a hobby turns into an obsession. I may have crossed that line. I think if you asked my wife she’d say that I definitely have.
I returned to riding a bicycle about eight, 10 years ago, when I finally woke up to the fact that I kept injuring myself running. I was living in California at that time, and a good friend of mine said, “I’m watching you go stir crazy because you can’t run. Why don’t you try riding a bike? I just bought a new road bike, so you can use my old one, and if you like it, you can have it.” So he took me out on a ride, and we went 25 miles through the vineyards in California wine country, and I was instantly hooked.
It seems like every year I’ve deepened my involvement, maybe riding more miles or trying new disciplines. I started racing about five years ago, and I enjoy that, maybe because it’s pretty demanding and a pretty frightening activity. In road racing, you’re riding next to people inches off of somebody’s wheel. Pushing yourself really to the limit. I also enjoy the camaraderie because it is a team sport. And I like the tactics. It’s an interesting sport because 50 year olds can beat 25 year olds. If they’re smart about how they do it. There’s a saying that’s attributed to an Italian bike racer in the 1940s, a guy named Fausto Coppi, and the saying is, “Age and guile can beat youth and strength every time.”
I’ve had some wonderful adventures on the bike. One of them was riding in the Death Valley Double, which is a 200-mile ride. I did that three years ago, in March. You start at dawn, you roll out of Furnace Creek, and you head south down the valley, then actually climb up out of the valley, and take a lunch break, turn around, and climb back. The hardest part is you’re back at the starting line at mile 150, and it was nightfall right around then, and we had another 50 miles to go, which is about three, four hours on the bike. That was wonderful, and after you ride a long, long ride like that, the dinner that you eat is the absolutely best food you ever had, even if it’s popcorn and a banana.
I look forward to doing RAGBRAI, which is really a world-famous cycling event. And I see it as a way to get to know better my new state. I’ve already fallen in love with Iowa and Iowans, and I’m looking forward to experiencing the state and the people in a way that bicycle touring I think lets you do that other kinds of touring don’t.
Beatles or Stones?
Oh, man, that is really, really hard to choose. I like them both. I saw the Stones perform in 1979, and my all-time favorite IMAX movie is Stones at the Max, shot during the European leg of the Steel Wheels tour. But the Beatles are pretty great, too, and I guess it probably just depends on my mood, whether I need to calm down, or pump it up.
Anything you’d like to add?
I am so impressed with the love that people have for this institution. How proud Hawkeyes are of their university, their team, their state. I feel very warmly welcomed into the family here. And I’m looking forward to meeting a lot more people, and making my contribution as part of the team to advance our great university.