Client Q&A: Diane “Di” Saunders

Hustlin’ Higher Ed Communications and the Value of Creative Partnerships

One of Oregon’s gems is literally our next-door neighbor. Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech) enjoys a reputation as one of the finest polytechnic universities in the country. The university is gearing up to celebrate its 75th anniversary in a few years, amid fantastic growth and opportunity, and the woman in charge of telling that story is Associate VP of Communications & Public Affairs Diane “Di” Saunders. We recently had a chance to ask a few questions … enjoy!

There is a lot of positive conversation surrounding Oregon Tech’s new leadership and direction. Can you sum up that vibe in a tweet (140 characters)?

DS: There’s a new era of progress and excitement among Oregon Tech’s stakeholders, with President Naganathan igniting and leading the charge.

Nicely done … how are you helping drive that awareness, from a PR perspective?

DS: We’re first doubling down on our branding efforts because Oregon Tech is not as well known in the Portland-Metro area and the Willamette Valley as it is in southern Oregon and other rural parts of the state. Oregon Tech has an amazing story to tell about its very high ROIs for graduates, its STEM-based in-demand degrees across engineering, technology, healthcare and other areas like business and applied degrees like Environmental Sciences and Population Health Management. If our name and mission recognition are low than these impressive success rates aren’t sticky with those we’re trying to reach. So we’re balancing branding and recruitment focused messages in our strategic advertising. We’ve done the same with a new series of short, degree and ROI focused videos. Working with SmithBates we’re launching a new capabilities view-book for our industry, donor and higher education partners, new recruitment pieces for our prospective student audiences, and some innovative poster-brochures for some of our brand new degrees that are quickly taking off. In other words, it’s a busy, exciting time at Oregon Tech.

I would think all this exciting change is helping attract students?

DS: Yes, there is a growing awareness of Oregon Tech’s unique, in-demand degrees among both “traditional” students just coming out of high school, and transfer students who seek us out after getting an associate’s degree, or are returning for another bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Oregon Tech has enjoyed enrollment increases in the last several years, with our Online Campus and new on-campus degrees attracting more students to our hands-on, professionally focused degrees in basically all of the most in-demand fields in the market. We are also working with hundreds of high school students across the state, offering Oregon Tech credits in the dual credit courses offered at their schools or on-campus at Oregon Tech. This is a great pipeline of students for us and we’re working to ensure that they know what Oregon Tech has to offer so they can put us on their short list of college choices. Of course, we would like to be #1 with all of them, but we mainly want them to know about the returns that students get with an Oregon Tech degree in hand, and to know what their options are for one of the most important decisions they’ll make at the beginning of a long career trajectory.

What are some of the innovative things Oregon Tech is doing to lure the brightest minds to Oregon?

DS: All of our degrees have a very hands-on, applied approach so it gets our students practicing in their field right from the start. This is very attractive to a certain type of student. This could be lab experiences, outdoor fieldwork, internships and externships. Oregon Tech encourages experimentation and risk-taking because failures are often the best teachers. This produces innovative professionals who don’t need the training other new entrants might need just out of college. They’ve done the “work” at Oregon Tech so it’s not brand new when they take that first position after graduating. Catalyze Klamath Falls is a program that exemplifies this spirit of innovation. It’s a Shark Tank-type campus competition where student teams develop a plan to take an idea to market. Some have already been building high tech inventions in sheds in their yards, and this gives them a chance to build a team from different degree areas to develop a tight business plan and pitch it in front of industry and economic development leaders, and even angel investors. The prize money is getting close to $25,000 awarded to the top three teams. This has produced businesses located in Klamath Falls, which is the goal of the effort. This year it’s on May 17 on the Klamath Falls campus; it’s a really interesting event to watch and always makes me, once again, in awe of our very smart students! You have been running a lean, mean marketing machine for a while. Talk a little about your experience working with SmithBates as a creative partner. DS: SmithBates came in and helped us keep marketing productivity moving at Oregon Tech at a time of high growth, several special events, and during a period being short on in-house design resources. We simply couldn’t have accomplished the number and quality of projects without SmithBates’ help. Evelynn provides the project management we need besides coordinating the design and printing side of the projects with their cadre of designers. In other words, she takes on some of the headaches, and simply takes off our plate the amount of time it takes to coordinate the dozens and dozens of projects we’re working on over the course of an academic year. We have pretty tight deadlines we need to work within and SmithBates goes into warp speed when needed to accommodate our needs. It’s a great partnership, and we also enjoy keeping the work local in Klamath Falls.

We enjoy being a part of the success story for Oregon Tech! What tips would you share with others that might be thinking about using a consultant for their creative services?

DS: Be clear with the agency on what you need. Get us much on paper and in writing as possible to ensure that everyone is on the same page. I know we’re guilty of not always being great at that, but Evelynn keeps us on track!

Go to the table with an idea of what you want so you aren’t wasting your time and the designers going back and forth at basic conceptual stages. That also costs money. Save ideas you see online or in materials from other organizations and use those to help build your unique approach.

Lastly, treat the outside resources like part of the inside team. You’re all working on the same end goal, so do it together.

Putting on your sky-is-the-limit ball cap, what is one thing you would love to produce or implement to market Oregon Tech?

DS: If money was no object, I would love to do an all-out branding push of Oregon Tech across the airwaves, all channels, all markets, from streaming and traditional TV to digital to radio to social media and other avenues. Name recognition is what we are working on now, so in my dream world, getting that awareness level higher and getting more students to our unique programs would be an all-Oregon Tech push. Think of the Wayfare.com commercials that suddenly were everywhere, with their jingle rolling around in our heads. They went from zero to blast off very quickly because of their blanket advertising push. There’s always that chance that we’ll discover gold on campus, besides the geothermal wells, so you never know!

Ha! You better start digging! Changing the subject … what do you do to recharge?

DS: I’m a writer, so I write when I’m not at work too, but switch to fiction. I just published my first novel and working on a second. My husband and I got a fixer upper beach house a few years ago and it’s our recharge zone. I truly am more creative when I write with an ocean view. While I’m a native Oregonian, I’ve lived all over the world, but the Oregon coast has few rivals in beauty or calming strength.

Any last thoughts to share?

DS: Marketing is actually really fun stuff, but sometimes the workload and deadlines make it not as fun. When I get away for a few days or a week on vacation, I regain that context. It also helps reignite my creativity. So even when the deadlines are looming, it can be more productive to step away for a few days, take a breath, and gain perspective.

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