Sweatshops, Barbies…and now college students?

Photo by Olivia McSpadden

In her office located at the Martin J. Neeb Center, Donna Gibbs shares her experiences from working at Apple, Nike, Mattel, Inc. and overseas. Photo by Olivia McSpadden

Newly hired VP of Marketing & Communications channels expertise for PLU

By Olivia McSpadden ’15

PLU scouted for the ideal professional to join the university’s mission in a position that is new to applicants: Vice President of Marketing and Communications. After recent hire, Donna Gibbs was selected to apply skills learned at notable companies to manage potential crisis and broaden the message of PLU.

Her expertise acquired from directing public relations at Apple, managing worldwide sales at Mattel, Inc. and corporate communications at Nike illustrate her savvy sense for internal and external communication and brand marketing.

Crisis Communication in action
PLU always prepares an Emergency Management Guide that contains contact information, procedures and scripts to be used in a time of crisis. The goal of any crisis communications plan is to assist in the management of a crisis and provide direction to faculty, staff and students.

According to Campus Communications in the Age of Crisis, “Delays in communication can be as harmful as lying.”

The goal is to have a detailed plan of action before a crisis occurs. A team here reviews PLU’s Crisis Communications Plan about every month to keep plans current. This team has tabletop exercises that focus on playing out different scenarios from natural disasters, bomb threats to campus safety, etc.

“I enjoy my team and enjoy them as people. All of them are awesome and profoundly good,” Gibbs said.

Within her first few weeks at PLU, Gibbs updated the messaging strategies in this plan to address social media. In today’s world, important news travels quickly so it is imperative that official PLU accounts have strategies to tell the truth and tell it quickly.

Traditional media still remain as priorities for releasing information but cannot address immediate crisis information that social media can handle.

Gibbs believes that social media does require more attention in times of crisis because rumors spread at alarming rates. People expect news on a 24-hour basis. If the official PLU channel can address issues in a timely manner, misinformation is less likely to continue.

Broadening the message of PLU
Along with her expertise in communication, Gibbs’ marketing experience is being used for the university’s need for formal marketing. PLU has the potential to broaden its message so that it can compete with other universities.

In a competitive market, Gibbs has the task of selling PLU’s professors, credentials and the overall experience in a way that is distinctive. Almost every university or college focuses on small classroom sizes, knowledgeable professors and study abroad opportunities, which means that Gibbs has a challenge.

“I find joy in reinventing and solving problems,” Gibbs said.

One of her goals is to help redesign PLU’s website to be more intuitive, elegant and easier to navigate. Currently the website is not built for responsive design, a term that explains why it is difficult to navigate the homepage on a smartphone. The page does not provide an optimal viewing experience when it is accessed on smaller screen sizes.

Photo by Olivia McSpadden

At her desk Gibbs has the responsibility of managing ongoing projects for the university. Photo by Olivia McSpadden

In the future the site will fluidly adjust to mobile devices, tablets and smaller computer screens while maintaining ease of scrolling, panning and resizing with the help of developing technology.

These updates to PLU’s website have the potential to reach more prospective students and please current students, faculty and staff as well as alumni. Along with making the website more elegant, Gibbs wants to be more proactive with marketing PLU’s brand.

Gibbs sees areas of improvement to help create a distinctive brand and craft authentic messaging for PLU after attending the American Marketing Association’s 2013 Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education in Boston this year.

By proactively marketing PLU through web advertisements and other strategies, Gibbs sees the opportunity to broaden the university’s name in the near future. She also sees the opportunity to focus more attention on transfer students and address them specifically.

Print designs specifically for transfer students decorated her desk with plenty of PLU’s existing print material in sight. This focus on the transfer population will specifically market to Spring semester transfer students.

But why higher education?

Gibbs’ credentials are scattered among leading companies such as Nike, Apple, Microsoft and Mattel, Inc. (to name a few). She has been involved with the messaging and marketing involved with Nike’s move to be transparent and focus on sustainability, factory issues in developing nations and the controversial conversation about Barbie® girl dolls as poor role models for girls.

All of these issues provide a range of strategic knowledge and crisis management that can be useful to PLU. However, one might wonder why trade all of that for higher education?

The answer: students. “[They] are the purpose of work that makes it all worthwhile,” said Gibbs.

Gibbs values the commitment that her team, faculty and staff all make to the university’s mission. She does not see monetary gain as the focus for any of these people and that drives her to contribute to the positive impact that PLU aims to have on students. In her mind, the professors are the product that she is selling and the outcome of proper marketing is an experience for students that influences their lives.

“It’s funny because I’ve spent 30 years working and I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with great companies, but I feel like this is the first time in my career that I’m doing something that matters,” Gibbs said.

From her experience she uses the basics of “Be honest. Be proactive. Be true to who you are as a brand, as a person and as a professional,” to guide her. With this lens, the legacy and future of PLU’s brand is in capable hands.

Related Article: “PLU names new VP of Marketing and Communications”



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