UVA rebuilds its communications department, hands Sullivan the reins

In the nine months since UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s attempted ouster, the University’s communications department has been completely restructured—and brought directly under the president’s command. Photo: John Robinson In the nine months since UVA President Teresa Sullivan’s attempted ouster, the University’s communications department has been completely restructured—and brought directly under the president’s command. Photo: John Robinson

As the first anniversary of the attempted ouster of UVA President Teresa Sullivan approaches, a major restructuring of the upper levels of the University’s administration is underway, as still-new Chief Operating Officer Patrick Hogan reshuffles his business and fundraising chiefs. But an even bigger management shift has gotten less attention.

Sullivan has reorganized, renamed, and rehoused the University’s Public Affairs department, creating a new communications operation that is squarely focused on branding and marketing—and firmly under her control. It’s a move that both brings the school into the modern era of campus communications and gives Sullivan an even more direct role in setting the message coming out of UVA.

“President Teresa Sullivan has separated the University’s central communication function from its former location within the Office of Development and Public Affairs, a change that will strengthen both central communication and advancement communication,” reads the job description for the new position of Chief Information Officer. The opening was quietly filled on an interim basis last October by Anthony de Bruyn, former head of communications for the massive University of Texas system, who arrived a few weeks after the departure of longtime UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood.

Wood’s job hadn’t been an easy one during her last three months. E-mails released under the Freedom of Information Act following the events of last June showed she didn’t know about Sullivan’s resignation until a draft press release announcing it landed in her inbox the day before. In the hectic week that followed, Wood and her team were pulled between two masters. As she processed reporters’ requests to interview Sullivan, she also reviewed statement after statement with Rector Helen Dragas and the Board of Visitors, who ultimately hired a private PR firm to handle the fallout. But it was Wood who posted statements from faculty leaders through the UVAToday website, and when Sullivan returned to the public stage, Wood was again her gatekeeper.

The new organizational structure leaves no question as to who’s in charge. The CIO is a member of the president’s cabinet, and the whole communications apparatus answers to Sullivan’s office, including the media relations arm, now under former Daily Progress Managing Editor McGregor McCance.

De Bruyn’s arrival last year might have had something to do with his experience battling campus scandal—he manned the communications ship at UT following the forced resignation of a law school dean that ended up pitting state lawmakers against a defensive UT Board of Regents—but he wouldn’t say how much the restructuring or his hiring were influenced by the events of “Orange Spring.”

He is, however, quick to point out other changes that needed to happen at UVA.

“There was no marketing function when I arrived here,” said de Bruyn, which put it behind its peers. “It’s something the University needs.”

When he presented the restructured communications department to the Board in February, de Bruyn underscored that the department will include four new positions: three marketing gurus and a social media coordinator. The focus on branding and the Web is necessary to keep up with a changing world, he said.

“When I started my career, Facebook wasn’t around. Twitter wasn’t around. Smart phones didn’t exist,” de Bruyn said. But the school now has to meet its audience wherever they are.

What’s happening at UVA—both the centralized approach to communications and the new push to blend promotion and information—isn’t surprising, said Rae Goldsmith, an educational communications and marketing expert at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). For the last two decades, there have been big shifts in how schools present themselves to the world.

“We’ve definitely been seeing a trend, particularly at larger institutions, to move the communications and marketing functions to reporting directly to the president of the institution,” Goldsmith said.

The choice of de Bruyn to shepherd in a new era of communications reflects another change. He’s a career college communications man, as opposed to Wood and McCance, who both came to the world of public relations after many years in the newspaper business.

“It used to be they all came out of journalism,” said Goldsmith. Now, “you’re tending to see more and more people come into the role from a campus background.”

If UVA has dragged its feet, it’s in good company.

“It’s fair to say that the institutions with the strongest reputations have been a little slower to move into marketing,” said Goldsmith. That’s largely because for higher ed, marketing used to be much more simple: look good to the best students. But that’s changed. Not only is there stiffer competition for top talent, in the Twitter age, everybody’s watching—and talking.

“As the world has become more connected, institutions have realized they can’t afford not to be thinking not only about communications, but also about marketing and branding,” Goldsmith said.

The events of last June likely drove that message home for UVA’s leaders, who watched opposition to the Board of Visitors coalesce and build in real time on social media. What Sullivan’s would-be ousters had hoped would be a quiet coup turned into a national scandal.

No surprise, then, that nearly a year later, UVA communications looks a lot different, and Sullivan has circled the wagons.

“Any institution that goes through a major crisis of any kind will look at itself and say, ‘Is there something we could have done differently or better?’” Goldsmith said. “Thoughtful institutions do look and think about what [they] could have done differently. They can’t afford not to.”