Q & A with Helen Ackerman, Vice President for University Relations

Posted: December 18, 2003 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette. To view previous articles, visit the Q&A archive page.

By Robin Herron

Can you outline your major duties and responsibilities as vice president for University Relations?

The role of University Relations is to communicate a consistent and positive image of George Mason University to all its publics–internal and external–by promoting the achievements of the institution and its people. University Relations consists of Events Management, Information Services, Media Relations, Community Relations, and Creative Services, which includes design, editing and writing, multimedia, photography, and web development. My job is to work with the leadership of the university to define the university’s messages and to communicate these messages as effectively as possible, and this is what all these offices are basically engaged in, although they do it in different ways. On top of that, I also work on a number of related projects at the discretion of the president [Alan Merten]–things like the general obligation bond campaign, Plan 2010, and so forth.

Can you describe your career at George Mason?

I came to George Mason just before George Johnson arrived as president in 1978, and my position at that time was freelance writer in the public relations office. From that I became director of media relations, then an assistant vice president, then I was made vice president in 1992. I can’t imagine a more engaging, stimulating, challenging, and fun job. I think I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in being part of George Mason during an extremely interesting time in its history. I have been able to be part of creating a new institution. And I’ve also been lucky to have worked with some extraordinary people, people who are really out-of-the-box thinkers.

Helen Ackerman
Helen Ackerman

What do you like best about your job?

The absolute unpredictability of it. I have a low threshold for boredom and I have never been bored at George Mason. The other thing I love about my job is the people you get to work with, both people who are here as permanent faculty and staff and also the people who just pass through. Sometimes it’s the chance to hear Mikhail Gorbachev or David Halberstam. Other times I’ve had the chance to work at some length with people like writer and former Heritage Professor Carlos Fuentes–he was here for a year and we did a whole campaign and lecture series with him.

The other thing I enjoy is that although George Mason is 30 years old, I think all of us are to some degree pioneers. We’re still in the process of creating. It’s not like we’ve moved into a maintenance mode at George Mason. So I think that everybody who gets involved feels like they can make a contribution and that they have something valuable to give to a valuable purpose. It’s very exhilarating.

What recent achievements are you most proud of?

That’s a hard question to answer because I don’t really think that way. There are things that the unit has done, like the bond campaign. I thought that we did an extremely good job with that. Everybody in University Relations contributed, they did it well, and we had a great outcome. But we didn’t do it alone. Many people–faculty, staff, alumni, and students–really made an effort, and it was the combination that gave us success. We have organized some very successful events for the university, ranging from the Global Internet Summit to our annual commencements. Along the same lines, I think that the role we played in University Relations, along with many other offices in the university, to support the university community through 9/11 and its aftermath–and then the various other crises that have occurred over these last couple of years–has shown our office at its best.

What are some examples of how University Relations responded during 9/11?

The web page that Paras Kaul [Electronic Publications] created, the information that was put up on it, the events that Barbara Lubar [Events Management] organized, the memorial events, the wildflower planting, Dan Walsch’s and Jeremy Lasich’s [Media Relations] efforts to keep communicating through the Gazette and various other outlets, Bobbi Fuller’s [Information Services] people trying to keep people calm–everybody got involved in one way or another. When there’s a crisis occurring, people are desperate for information, and I think that everything we did, along with the efforts of all the other offices on campus, helped hold the campus together in a way that made it easier for our community.

Speaking of crises, can you talk about your work with the Crisis Committee?

Tom Hennessey [chief of staff] chairs the Crisis Committee and I’m part of the Crisis Communications Committee. Since 9/11 we’ve been trying to codify the way we communicate about crises so that not only do we know what to do, but the campus community knows what to expect. Then, of course, we have to think about communicating with external communities like parents and the general public, who want to know what’s happening on campus under a crisis situation as well. It’s very, very complex. We had a Crisis Committee before 9/11, but 9/11 was of a level of emergency that we hadn’t had to work with before, and it made us focus more closely on how we need to be prepared.

You head the Marketing Committee at George Mason. What kinds of things is this group involved in?

The Marketing Committee was established by Dr. Merten about three years ago. It represents all the major outreach operations of the campus: Admissions, Development, Athletics, Center for the Arts, Alumni, University Relations, and University Life. Our first role was to develop a marketing plan for the university. As part of that we worked with Dr. Merten to develop a vision statement for the university.

The Marketing Committee is now engaged in developing one of the fundamental bases for marketing, which is a new visual identity for the university. The visual identity is essentially the way we present our name to the public, whether on our web site, our publications, our business cards, stationery, or sides of trucks. We’re in the midst of that process at the moment. The reason it’s so important is that one of the things we struggle with at George Mason is just plain name recognition. That’s partly because we’re such a new university–30 years isn’t very old for a university. But it’s also because the greater Washington area is a fairly transient community. To reinforce our name by a consistent use of the wordmark and a recognizable look for the university is an important part of increasing and enhancing our visibility.

Was there a sense that the identity we’ve been using just wasn’t doing it?

Right. What we call the signature, or wordmark, which is the “George Mason University” with a line above it, has been in place for the last 20 years and was never really embraced with enthusiasm by the university community. There was a growing feeling that it did not have the dynamism that reflects the school as it is today. So we sent out an RFP and have engaged a company called Grafik to work with us on developing a new visual image for the institution. That will provide a foundation for our marketing program for the university.

When and how will the new identity be introduced?

The company has developed a number of designs, which have been reviewed by several groups representative of various university constituencies–alumni, faculty, staff, and students. The designers have listened to their comments, and are now incorporating these responses into the final designs that will go before the president for his selection. I anticipate that we will have a new wordmark and logo by the end of this year. Then we hope to introduce the visual identity in fall 2004. We will use the interim period to help people transition from one look to the other. In our current budget situation, we are not going to just throw away old material to replace it with the new. But if the campus community is aware that the new look is coming, they can plan orders of stationery, new publications, and other items to coincide with the introduction of the new look.

Can you describe the work of the Building Naming Committee that you also chair?

That’s a new effort that Dr. Merten initiated a few months ago. He asked the group to look at those buildings that were still bearing what I call their construction names, like SUB I and Lecture Hall, and to come up with what are essentially interim names for these buildings that they could carry until such time as a donor might want to make a contribution and have his or her name put on the building. It’s an interesting exercise because people feel very strongly about names. Names convey very strong messages. So identifying what kinds of names would be appropriate for George Mason and what kinds of names would be appropriate for each campus is quite challenging. But we have a very good committee, and we will be coming up with names to go to the Executive Council for its approval.

How are you going about assigning names to the buildings?

We began by thinking about appropriate categories. Those that seem to work best are those associated with George Mason the man, and historical and geographical names related to Northern Virginia or Virginia.

The committee’s first challenge was to name Housing VI, because it’s now under construction, and in order to publicize it and market the beds, we need a name for it. The committee came up with several names, consulted with resident students and housing staff, and recommended the name Potomac Heights, which has been approved.

What challenges or new directions do you see for University Relations?

I think University Relations is going to become increasingly marketing oriented. And I think part of our job is to help others on campus do the same thing. People are only going to pay for what they value, and it’s not enough just to assume that higher education will always be seen as a public good. We can see that people are very concerned about their taxes and want to know that their tax money is being spent wisely. We need to help them understand that that is the case with higher education. There is still some perception, I think, that universities are elitist, that they’re detached from the real world. One of the strengths of George Mason is that it is engaged, it’s not ivory tower in its relationship with its community or the world as a whole. It is making a difference to people’s quality of life not just educationally but in research and in the way it serves our public. Our challenge is to help all our constituencies understand and appreciate this so that they will support higher education. However, this is not just a responsibility of University Relations, but it’s something that we all need to be engaged in.

The stories that University Relations promotes, the publications that we do, the events that we present, are all done in the context of the university’s marketing plan and the messages that we’re trying to communicate. But we also want to help individual units both to understand and promote the university’s messages as well as to identify and communicate about their own areas as well.

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