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Behind Every Community College President Is a Strong PIO

By Cindy Miles

A strong public information officer (PIO) is essential to the ongoing work and mission of your community college. Here’s why.

Community college CEOs have to be much more than academic leaders. Our daily practice includes the arts of strategy, resource management, cheerleading, collaboration, negotiation, fundraising and communication — all while being adept enough to sidestep political minefields that pop up, typically when we don’t have a single extra moment to spare.

We must keep up with swift-moving internal and external affairs, constantly and carefully nurture relationships and serve as a wellspring of continuous and accurate information, all while keeping our increasingly complex — and highly regulated and scrutinized — organizations running smoothly. And as if that weren’t enough, we have to do it while striving to keep our eyes on the prize of student learning and success.

Our keenest partner in these endeavors might very well be our public information officers. The title varies from college to college, but the role is essentially the same: We rely on PIOs to maintain strong internal communications; ensure that our college’s reputation is intact; foster deep connections within the community; provide accurate information to us, the media and the public; showcase outstanding students, employees and programs; document our stewardship, successes and accountability; and serve as an extra set of eyes, ears, hands and vocal cords. Everything we need to help get the job done.

In the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District in eastern San Diego County, where I serve as chancellor, we recently combined our communications, public information and oversight for our foundation and grants operations into a single department: Advancement and Communications. In my mind, good communications and fundraising go hand in hand. People give when they believe their gifts are both deserved and well managed — and they’re more likely to contribute when they are moved by personal stories that demonstrate the impact their gift will have on the college and surrounding community. Good communication equals good development.

Our colleges accomplish so much for our communities. It’s important that we share our good works as well as our challenges, so that our communities will continue to trust and support us. That’s why public information officers play such a vital role in the success of our institutions and, ultimately, the students we serve.

Our PIOs help us get good media coverage when it’s merited; avoid undeserved negative coverage; and provide responsive, factual information to reporters and the public. PIOs prepare the brochures, newsletters, fact sheets, annual reports, press releases, videos, Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that maintain our connections to the public and encourage donors to give and students to enroll.

Most community colleges I know have only one or two folks in their marketing and communications offices, and that means the PIO must wear many hats:

  • A good PIO is a diplomat, comfortable and compatible with the varied constituencies that our colleges engage: elected officials, residents, businesspersons, reporters, parents, faculty, staff and students. The PIO needs to make sure all stakeholders are engaged with our colleges and feel that their voices are being heard.
  • A good PIO should be a soothsayer, able to anticipate upcoming events and prepare for the future. The PIO must keep one eye over the horizon, from the everyday monitoring of the college calendar to writing communiques about upcoming events to preparing a communications plan long before emergencies happen. A far-sighted PIO can smell trouble before it takes form and helps the CEO avert trouble.
  • Finally, a good PIO has to be a nimble juggler, dealing with countless assignments at the same time and meeting deadlines while making sure that no balls hit the ground. The PIO must be able to write the news release on the budget while talking to the homeowners upset about students blocking their driveways and preparing the talking points for the CEO’s community forum: all due today!

A solid relationship between CEOs and their PIOs is built on trust on a professional and a personal level. The level of honesty and bluntness required in the relationship is akin to that of a family: Just as a relative won’t hesitate to tell you when you’ve got a piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth, a PIO is the one who should warn you when trouble is brewing and feel comfortable enough to speak frankly with you no matter the situation.

I trust my PIO to make the call on how we should respond to media inquiries and to create the right tone in our communications to the staff and the public. My PIO trusts me to keep her posted on everything happening in our college district that could become newsworthy, and to be honest and forthright about any issues that may develop.

The relationship between a CEO and a PIO should be a close partnership of equals based on a common goal: communicating clearly and accurately about the institution and letting everyone know about the lives that our colleges transform through education. We have lots of stories to share, and our PIOs are the best ones to tell them!

Cindy Miles

is chancellor of Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District in California.

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