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URBANA — A public relations consultant hired for $550,000 to develop a "branding" plan for the University of Illinois is no longer working on the project, but the campus has created a new Marketing Advisory Council to coordinate marketing and communications efforts.

One item on its to-do list is assessing the need for a high-level administrator to oversee a central campus marketing office, though interim Chancellor Barbara Wilson hasn't endorsed that idea yet.

Wilson quietly terminated the UI's contract with the Edelman public relations firm shortly after taking over the job last August following Phyllis Wise's resignation. The News-Gazette had publicized the contract in July.

The firm was paid a total of $382,000, according to the university.

"In light of the budget challenges we faced, I decided it was best to end the Edelman project, but continue the work with communications professionals on campus," Wilson said. "The decision had nothing to do with the quality of the Edelman work. They provided us with a great foundation for the Marketing Advisory Council to build on."

Spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Wilson examined all expenditures after taking office, "trying to get a handle on where we were on a lot of projects, and that one was a significant outlay of money."

Edelman was hired in April 2015, in part to prepare for a major fund drive set to kick off in 2017. The campus also brought the firm in to help with "crisis communications" during the Steven Salaita controversy in the summer of 2014, and for about six weeks in 2015 to help the UI athletic department deal with allegations of coaching abuse.

The original $550,000 no-bid Edelman branding contract was paid with private money from the University of Illinois Foundation, the UI's fundraising arm.

Some faculty members questioned why the UI would pay such a large sum to an outside consultant when it already had marketing experts and an extensive public affairs operation — more than 200 people — on campus.

Wise and Dan Peterson, former vice chancellor for institutional advancement who left the UI in February, had defended the decision as a strategic investment. Beyond the upcoming campaign, the right branding is important to motivate funders and donors, recruit top faculty and students in a competitive environment, and present a coherent image to taxpayers and legislators, they said.

UI officials said Edelman had done similar work with other organizations and, as an outside company, provided a fresh set of eyes and the ability to suggest politically unpopular changes that might not be possible internally.

The project had two components: the branding and marketing piece, and a separate review of the organization of campus communications. The current decentralized structure, with communications officers in units across campus, is thought to weaken the impact of the UI's marketing. Researchers found that they couldn't even determine what the UI spends on marketing each year.

The Edelman consultants conducted focus groups and surveys, and interviewed 85 people across campus about the Illinois "brand" and organizational issues with the marketing structure. They also evaluated the marketing efforts of institutions similar to the UI and asked for peer input.

A campus steering committee worked with Edelman, and Wilson asked that group to complete the project after Edelman's departure and draft a set of recommendations.

Council's checklist

In a February report to the chancellor, the panel said the campus needed a "purposeful, strategic, and coherent marketing operation responsible for building a sustainable, high-impact brand."

Wilson then created the Marketing Advisory Council to help campus leaders set marketing and communications strategy and offer advice on Illinois' "brand" and marketing structure — all to promote a more integrated approach. It's chaired by Bill Bell, the College of Engineering's executive director for marketing and communications.

The council will be asked to address the branding committee's recommendations, including:

— A job description for a new marketing leadership position that would report to the chancellor.

— A plan for establishing a campus marketing organization that would report to that person.

— Recommendations for how to develop a university brand, based on work by Edelman and others.

— Recommendations for better coordination of spending on marketing across campus.

Kaler said a new marketing position isn't in the cards "right now," given the budget situation, but said the campus would need to have someone in a coordinating role going forward. For now, Wilson opted to create the Marketing Advisory Council to "get us all talking to each other" and figure out what the campus can do with current resources, Kaler said.

One campus, one message

Market research has shown that people use the same terms to describe the UI: innovative, hard-working, collegial and creative, Kaler said. The goal is to reinforce that in all of the university's messages, from admissions to athletics to public affairs to advancement, and "increase the volume of our message," Kaler said.

Bell said it's a "life cycle" approach to marketing: a unified message from the time students apply to the UI to the time they graduate and beyond.

The new effort would respect the independence of colleges and units but also have a central marketing strategy driven by the campus strategic plan, the February report said. "Centralization anxiety" is common among department heads suspicious of efforts to reduce duplication or share resources.

"We recognize that campus culture values individual academic and research units' independence — perhaps above all else," the report said. "A marketing organization that does not recognize this fact will fail."

But a decentralized campus and a "shared brand and marketing strategy" aren't mutually exclusive, the report said.

"It's clear that decentralization has tons of upside on campus," Bell said. "We need to find better ways to build shared strategy on marketing issues in that environment."

The committee also urged the campus to fold the existing public affairs function under the marketing umbrella, with those employees "deployed in new ways based on priorities identified in the marketing strategy and reorganization."

"This is explicitly not a public affairs function as it has been conceived on this campus for more than two decades," the report said.

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).