New Directors in University Communications and University Marketing Look Ahead at the Goals and Vision for their Offices
It's been a busy academic year so far for two new, important hires in Western's University Relations and Marketing division: Jonathan Higgins was tabbed as the new director of the Office of University Communications in late spring, and Elizabeth Lambert was chosen to lead University Marketing shortly thereafter.
Higgins joined Western in August, coming to campus from Norway, after several years in Singapore, Thailand and Germany, where he consulted for Ford, Coca-Cola and Microsoft, and served as communications director for global telecom giant, Telenor Group. Most recently, he was VP of Marketing and Communications for the industrial software company, Cognite, based just outside of Oslo. But before you start packing up a welcome basket of Kjøttkaker (meatballs) and Fårikål (mutton and cabbage): Higgins is a Washington native and University of Washington graduate with family in Bellingham.
“After sixteen years working abroad, two of them during our global pandemic, it was feeling like high time to come home, and then I saw this opportunity at Western come up and jumped at it. As exciting and enriching as living abroad is, the time and the distance away have had this sort of clarifying effect – that there really are few better places to live and work than in the Pacific Northwest, and in this great community here at WWU in particular,” said Higgins.
Lambert comes to Bellingham from her previous job as the senior director of External Relations and Strategic Communications for the Graduate Division at the University of California, Davis. Before her time at UC Davis, Lambert worked as the director of Marketing and Recruitment for Drexel University's Sacramento campus and and at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California as the director of Enrollment Management Marketing and Communications. She said the opening in University Marketing at WWU was too good to pass up, and it allowed her to return to the Pacific Northwest, where she did her undergraduate work. Making the move to campus a true family affair, her husband Jason also joined Western’s Biology department as an instructor this fall.
“We’ve been in Bellingham for six months now, and I’m still struck with a sense of gratitude and wonder when I arrive at work each morning.” said Lambert. “It’s such a delight to be able to work alongside such talented and compassionate colleagues, all with a shared interest in advancing Western’s brand and mission.”
Gibbs said she was excited about the new injection of leadership in her division and looks forward to seeing how the directors guide their respective offices.
“I am delighted to have Jonathan’s and Elizabeth’s global perspective and deep experience with modern digital marketing and communications strategies in URM. As we face significant head winds including demographic declines that will impact enrollment and rising competition from universities nationwide, online education programs and alternative postsecondary offerings, we will need to continue to step up our institutional and brand visibility,” said Gibbs.
Western Today sat down and chatted with Lambert and Higgins recently to get their thoughts on their initial time on campus and what the future holds for University Communications and University Marketing.
WESTERN TODAY: Your first quarter on campus probably felt pretty hectic. Have you settled in, and what are your first impressions of Western and of your respective offices?
EL: The campus community has made it easy to get up to speed and settle in, and I’m fortunate to be working alongside a fantastic team of creative professionals. Derek Bryson, Chris Baker, and Megan Havens have been so generous with their insights and experiences while still being open minded to making changes. Starting right before the fall quarter helped too, as it allowed me to ride the natural momentum of a new academic year.
JH: Settling in well! Western strikes me as a kind and collaborative culture. Our University Communications team and WWU’s community of communicators and marketers are a passionate and talented group of storytellers and I feel very fortunate to now be part of the team.
WESTERN TODAY: Elizabeth, University Marketing is still a relatively new office. What can you tell us about your perceptions of where the university is, from a marketing perspective, and where you hope to steer this effort in the years ahead?
EL: Western has no shortage of strengths and compelling stories to tell. However, we need to work on shaking the “hidden gem” label and mindset. Our world is rapidly changing, and with these changes come shifts in societal priorities, values and habits. Across our campus and locations, Western students, faculty, and staff are deeply committed to shaping a world that’s more equitable, inclusive, sustainable, and creative, but we could be a little less humble about our wins. My team is charged with helping faculty, students, and staff articulate their values and strengths and meet the next generation of WWU students and their families where they are. It’s a community effort, and we need to approach it with curiosity and flexibility so that we can adapt to the needs of our prospective and continuing students. I’m hopeful that within a few years, Western will have deeper understanding of marketing as both a strategic business function and an exercise in truly seeing and serving our ever-changing student population.
WESTERN TODAY: Jonathan, can you tell the campus a little bit about what University Communications does and the services it offers?
JH: Our office is charged with protecting and promoting the reputation of WWU. We lead media relations on behalf of the university, pitch stories and expertise, and closely communicate with our community and stakeholders in times of crises. We produce our institutional publications, including this one, as well as Window magazine, among others. And we run the university’s official social media platforms, regularly engaging close to 200,000 followers with stories and messages that support WWU’s mission.
WESTERN TODAY: What are some areas that you both want to focus on over the remainder of your first year on campus?
EL: I’m interested in continuing to build a strong community of communicators across the Western campus and locations. The marketing and communications space is ever-evolving. There are so many talented creative professionals embedded in various colleges and divisions of the institution, but the way we work can leave us feeling isolated and directionless if we are not intentionally sharing findings and best practices and actively taking care of each other. Earlier this year, we hosted our first WWU Communicators Community meeting, and we hope to continue to create spaces and channels for support and collaboration.
JH: Top of the list is to ensure that the WWU stories we commit to are given the exposure and strategic placement that they deserve. It's easier said than done, but we're starting by implementing a new media distribution system for stories and news releases, amplifying WWU stories and statements, expanding our journalist network to be able to better target national, international, niche, trade, and non-traditional publications, and updating our online news portal. We’ll also continue building a social media practice that is in tune with the desires and habits of the end user, and on the pulse of whatever is coming next. Ultimately, we need to use each platform as it is designed to be used and meet our audiences where they are.
WESTERN TODAY: Jonathan, you have worked all over the world, from Norway to Southeast Asia, but never in higher ed before. And Elizabeth, you have a ton of higher ed experience, but less work in the private sector, so you each have a very different set of strengths and experiences that you bring to the table. How do you both think your backgrounds have prepared you to excel at this job?
JH: I think the size and diversity of a university requires that those working within it be able to empathize with a wide variety of backgrounds, ways of being, and interests. In communications, we have to shape stories and messages with all of that in mind, and we need to consider and predict audience reactions, information consumption and accessibility needs, timelines and attention spans. To do this well, being exposed to a kind of critical mass of situations and environments – and frankly, to as wide a set of humanity as possible – can help hone your inner tools, cultural competencies, flexibility, and strategic and predictive abilities. I hope that the skills I’ve built across organizations, industries, cultures, etc. will be useful to Western’s diverse communications needs – now and into the future.
EL: Onboarding alongside Jonathan has been a gift in that we’ve been able to discuss our experiences and perspectives along the way. He’s able to explore a project from a global perspective, while I can contextualize it in terms of standard practice in the higher education industry and peer institutions. The different scopes of reference allow us to explore challenges and opportunities from several different angles, yet somehow, we often land on the same conclusion.
WESTERN TODAY: Four or five years from now, when you look back on your initial tenure at Western, what do you think will need to have happened to view that time as a success?
JH: I’d hope that we can say, with the data to back it, that we’re well on the way to being seen as a university that provides a transformative education, that innovates, thinks big, and fosters well-being and a sense of belonging. I’d love to see more of our experts sourced by the likes of the New York Times, Scientific American, Axios, Wired, as well as affinity and non-English speaking national press. That would be a strong sign that we’re doing something right. I’d also hope that our use of emerging and existing social platforms is seen as a best practice in the higher ed world. Finally, I’ll hope my department, along with our partners in University Marketing, can help build up a robust campus-communications organization that excels at practical communications, community and culture building, and inspiration.
EL: Jonathan nailed it. Additionally, I’d like to see us at the top of the consideration list for more high school sophomores and juniors and their families. As a result of our marketing and communications successes, more families will have heard about Western, and students will feel that what we have to offer aligns with their academic and personal interests. More people will look at us and think, “Hey! That’s where I belong.” And in turn, we will be able to fulfill our promise, care for them as individuals, and help them accomplish more than they can even imagine. That’s the magic of higher education.
To find more information about the Office of University Communications and University Marketing, and learn more about how they can help your college, department, or office, go to https://www.wwu.edu/university-communications and https://www.wwu.edu/university-marketing.