Scared for your Future
Imagine being a college student from a low income family. You’ve had to work since you were of legal age to do so and you have a night job to keep your finances going. It’s tough, but thanks to the Illinois MAP grant, getting an education isn’t just a dream. That is until the state repeals funding for the MAP grant, putting your tuition—and future—in danger.
This was exactly what happened to thousands of students across Illinois in 2009. Worried for both their students and themselves, many universities rallied in opposition of the cuts, seeking repeal. Of these many schools was DePaul University, where November’s speaker Cheryl Procter-Rogers had recently been hired.
Cheryl was not a guest at our chapter meeting; she was an old friend. Having moved to Chicago in 1992, Cheryl was first greeted not with “Welcome to…” but rather, “Welcome back!” She and some of the long-term members recounted fond memories of the chapter’s beginnings, telling jokes and laughing in retrospect of the complications that came with Suburban Chicago’s birth.
It was from thinking back to her earlier days as a professional that brought Cheryl to her first lesson, that peer mentors are often more important than senior mentors. There is value, she said, in growing together with people in your position and being able to rely on one another. Having a friend learn a new lesson is just as good as learning it yourself.
Hitting the Ground Running
When Cheryl started at DePaul, she was told she wouldn’t be expected to do much early on beyond settling in and learning the ropes. That changed days later when her boss asked her to assist with the MAP grant situation. This meant establishing goals and objectives quickly and communicating them to all applicable parties. In this case, “all applicable parties” meant just about everyone.
Cheryl chose three objectives for the school’s campaign. First, the school would create awareness of the issue within the DePaul community while encouraging them to get involved. Next, the school would gain legislator support for the repeal using widespread phone calls and letters. Finally, Cheryl wanted to use this opportunity to get the spotlight on DePaul by positioning the university as being committed to its Vincentian principles of providing and advocating equal educational opportunities for students of all backgrounds.
The latter of these objectives was perhaps the most important. “In any struggle, find your mission and carve out an opportunity to position your institution as a leader in some way.” Though restoring funding to the MAP grants was already necessary on both financial and moral grounds, this third objective gave DePaul the chance to use the unfortunate situation to boost its own image as a student advocate.
With the objectives in place, Cheryl needed some message points to unify everything the school communicated throughout the campaign. “A campaign should have four message points at the most, but usually three,” Cheryl said at our meeting. “This situation was one where four were necessary.”
The first simply stated the campaign’s goal, that DePaul’s “Restore MAP” initiative supported any student who depended on financial aid, regardless of what school they attended. It then had to be made clear that the state’s choice to cut funding to the MAP grant negatively impacted DePaul’s mission. To explain just how bad the situation was, the third message point was that roughly 25% of DePaul’s student base lost tuition money due to the cuts. Finally, to make DePaul’s campaign congruent with the efforts of other universities, the last message point explained that it was not just DePaul taking initiative. Rather, DePaul was working with other universities to change the minds of legislatures.
“All messages must have all message points,”
Though the campaign was about restoring a grant for students, messages would have to reach beyond the school’s dorms in order to meet its goals. Within the DePaul community alone, audience members targeted DePaul’s faculty and staff, the board of trustees and DePaul alumni. As a focus of one of the campaign’s goals, state legislatures were also high on the list. And of course, the school’s RolodexTM of media contacts would provide a conduit to all the campaign’s audiences and anyone else willing to listen.
“Advocacy is not for the meek,” Cheryl said firmly when discussing DePaul’s desire to be seen as a leader in the efforts to repeal the MAP cuts. “If you’re afraid of controversy, you won’t be a good advocate. You have to show your teeth sometimes.” Much of what she did reflected this standpoint. “Make your objectives clear,” Cheryl said on communicating objectives to other people involved in the campaign. “Don’t be afraid to turn down ideas.”
Spreading awareness was not to be taken lightly, either. The school employed the use of media relations, on-campus student awareness activities, social media and even its own online newsroom site. They targeted organizations not directly affiliated with DePaul, such as immigrant groups. While no immigrant groups are official partners with DePaul, many recipients of the MAP grants are immigrants.
When audience members were given the message that the MAP grants were being cut, it was made clear to them just how deep the impact was. Often, the messages were blunt: Students who were receiving the grant were outright told exactly how much money they would be losing, should the cuts remain.
Then it came time to win over legislatures, and Cheryl’s methods were as direct as possible. “It’s a numbers game,” Cheryl explained. If a legislature checks her email in the morning to find 1,000 letters giving support to your cause, you will not be ignored. Thanks to DePaul’s awareness efforts along with what other schools had likewise been doing, legislatures were inundated with letters saying the same thing: bring the MAP grants back.
As you are reading this, those low income students at DePaul are not in classrooms. They are not cramming for their next test, nor are they getting caught up on readings. But come the end of Winter Break, these students will be back to pursuing their dreams, thanks to the State of Illinois’ repeal of the MAP grant cuts. The hard work of DePaul alongside other universities convinced legislatures that student education is too important to compromise.
But DePaul’s success went beyond fulfilling its mission of equal opportunity education. On the day of the rally in Springfield, DePaul brought 200 students to the average 40. And when the funding was restored, DePaul’s Blue Demon mascot was there at the press conference. To anyone watching, it was clear that DePaul was a leader in student advocacy. If you recall the objectives, that last bit should sound a tad familiar.
The campaign even did wonders for Cheryl’s position at DePaul. “At every new place I work, I use the first 100 days to get to know everyone in all departments,” she said at our meeting. “This campaign was a great chance to work with everybody.”
Tricks of the Trade
Despite working with nearly the entire DePaul administration, Cheryl was sure not to bog things down with meeting after meeting. She structured things such that the group only had to meet twice throughout the entire campaign; all other communication was done via email. Part of how this was achieved was by predicting possible outcomes prior to the meeting. Rather than to waste time with the “what ifs,” they were planned ahead of time and merely discussed to bring everyone to the same page.
Such preparedness is always a good idea, according to Cheryl. She recounts times during events she had planned when she would receive compliments for putting together a flawless event. “What they don’t understand is, they were looking at plan C!” By anticipating possible failures, backup plans could be just as successful as the original.
Cheryl is also a heavy advocate of research. Research helps you establish credibility by being able to prove you have an understanding of what you are communicating. In addition, research helps to establish effective numeric objectives by indicating how far you need to go to achieve results. Recall that DePaul brought 200 students to protest the MAP grant cuts, and aimed for 1,000 letters to legislatures. Both of those numbers came from understanding what kind of numbers other schools were bringing to the protests and how many letters legislatures received on an average day.
“Stay true to the tenants of public relations,” Cheryl insisted, summing up the bulk of her advice. Research is PR 101. Always evaluate your work after the fact to improve your work in the future. Establishing solid, measurable objectives and reasonable, consistent message points to achieve them is just as critical. And last but not least, plan everything with the end in mind.