Q & A with Christine LaPaille, Vice President for University Relations

Posted: March 28, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Carrie Lake

Christine LaPaille
Christine LaPaille

Before joining George Mason in May 2005, Christine LaPaille was director of communications at the National Governor’s Association where she developed and implemented communication strategies to support federal legislative priorities and research initiatives.

Prior to that, she was president and founder of Agenda Communications, a public affairs firm based in Chicago. Other highlights of her career include serving as director of corporate and government relations with Jasculca/Terman and Associates of Chicago; chief of staff to the House minority leader of the Illinois House of Representatives; and research/planning desk/field producer with WLS-TV/ABC television. She began her career as a political reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

As vice president for University Relations, LaPaille oversees media relations, publications, electronic publications, events management, information services, community relations and multimedia and photography and works closely with the university president on special projects.

What is your approach to public relations and how do you apply it at Mason?

Public relations is not just a press release, or an article in the Mason Gazette or a quote in the local newspaper. Public relations is combining the different ways of reaching our audiences –media relations, community activities, really great events – that will truly build visibility for the university.

In the past couple of months, I’ve been working to identify the positive, interesting and important things happening at the university – the things that deserve a full-fledged public relations approach.

What is George Mason’s brand and what are you doing to enhance it?

We still need to determine what George Mason’s brand is. I have just engaged a market research firm to work with me to do a survey and some research throughout the greater Washington, D.C., area. They will interview 1,000 residents to get a benchmark of how the region views George Mason.

Another part of that research will be to talk to opinion leaders to get a better sense of how they define a world-class university. We have to determine what things George Mason does really well – things that impress our outside world – and then take those things and turn them into our unique brand.

A brand has to be your unique statement to the world, what it is that you do best and what makes you different. Once we have that created for George Mason, we will be implementing those messages across the university so people will understand what we want our external audiences to know about the university.

People always think of a “brand” as a logo, but it’s not. A brand is what you do every day that is different from your competitors. George Mason is a young university, and so it is appropriate for us to be looking at this and really trying to get our arms around what is the university’s distinct brand.

What is your vision for University Relations and what changes have you made so far?

My vision is that everyone at the university who is responsible for internal or external communications will work together, rather than in individual silos. Everybody in University Relations does a really great job – whether it is creating materials or putting on events or handling information on campus. But what we don’t do well – what we need to do better – is to work together to build the reputation of the university. And the only way we can accomplish that in University Relations is to make sure we are utilizing all of our resources in a cohesive and coordinated way.

I have restructured the staff somewhat so we can move a little more aggressively, be more proactive and bring in some more talent. We have talented people, we just don’t have enough of them. Rick Custer recently joined Mason as the director of Creative Services. He brings more than 25 years of experience in the publishing world. I’ve just hired a new director of communications who will manage the media relations operation. There are also plans to double the size of the staff over the next two years. To handle the public relations needs of a university this size we just need to have more people on board.

What are the key issues University Relations is working on now?

I meet with my senior management team every week to talk about common issues, problems and common goals. We brought in a consultant to identify what major issues prevent us from being as good as we can be and how are we going to work on them in the next year.

In terms of projects, we are working on the external communications related to the upcoming reorganization of the College of Arts and Science into two new colleges – the College of Science and the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. There are some very positive reasons why creating a College of Science is a great step forward, and my team must determine what the external audiences should know. Since I have been here, we have also redesigned the home page and reconfigured the Mason Gazette in an effort to utilize our web site in more effective ways – that is an ongoing objective.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered since you arrived last May, and what are you doing to overcome it?

Learning the culture. I came from a private sector and public affairs background. The skill set that I bring to the job is really relevant to the public relations challenges facing George Mason. Learning this environment and figuring out how I can take my skill set and really make it work in a higher education setting has been the biggest challenge. And George Mason is a really big place with exciting and interesting people. Trying to meet them all and figure out where they fit in the big picture is going to be an ongoing challenge.

Are there any new initiatives or special projects you are working on?

I am working to create a documentary that shows our relationship with Inova Health System. We have four really strong areas of research where we are partnering with Inova, and we’d like to tell that story. I’m having conversations now with WETA and some producers they recommended to see how we can go about this over the next year or two.

What are your goals for the coming year?

Since I came here I have really been interested in putting together a community relations program that has a science component. Something that our science faculty, our education faculty and the University Relations team can work on together. It would be directed primarily at the middle school level – 7th or 8th graders – with the larger goal being to introduce young people to the exciting and interesting careers there are in science.

We know that getting children interested in science is a national problem. We know that America doesn’t have enough kids going into math and sciences and therefore they are not being exposed to the wonderful careers of the future. George Mason offers unique degree programs that are directly related to the careers of the future. In my mind, we need to educate those 7th and 8th graders and high school students as to what cool, science-based things they could be doing in the future. We just put a group together at the university that will work on that.

The second goal is to have some excellent feature coverage of George Mason University. I think that we need to be really aggressive and proactive about getting our story told in the national news. I want the story of George Mason to be told, not just the story of what an individual faculty member might be doing.

Is there anything – good or bad – that has surprised you about Mason?

It doesn’t surprise me, but I think the really good thing here is there is nowhere to go but up. I have been surprised at the truly unique groundbreaking work that is going on here, and the challenge is to figure out how to tell that story. There is nothing that we have to create out of thin air. There are plenty of things going on throughout the university that are worthy of national news attention. My job is to figure out how we tell the story.

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