While taking a walk around the campus, you will easily spot the various Boundless posters hanging off several poles. Are you heading towards the bathroom? Chances are you’ll be sitting on the toilet face-to-face with a poster. Did you hear that the University of Toronto was ranked 16th in the world this month? You may have seen that shared on Facebook from a UTM-based social media account. These are all examples of Marketing and Communications hard at work here at UTM.
Despite their broad reach, the department is no more than a three-person team that works for the Office of Advancement. The team consists of Jane Stirling, director, Nicolle Wahl, assistant director, and Blake Eligh, a communications officer.
To many, the marketing and communications department may seem like nothing more than a method to attract potential students. However, the truth is that the responsibility for attracting new students actually belongs to the Office of Student Recruitment and Admissions. The marketing and communications department plays a whole different game.
The department’s role
“We develop, direct, and plan all the marketing and communications initiatives that tell the story of the University of Toronto Mississauga,” says Stirling. “We look after the brand of UTM and any marketing, external marketing, and advertising flows through our office.
“We cover a broad swath of areas in terms of promoting the university. Nicolle [Wahl] does a lot of work on the digital side of the house and the social media side. We promote events, researchers, and research at the university through our media relations,” says Stirling.
For example, the Boundless campaign was a central initiative to all three campuses. “It started very much as a fundraiser tool,” describes Stirling. “It [then] broadened to all three campuses and stakeholder groups to encompass the endless and boundless possibilities that exist within the University of Toronto.”
According to Stirling, the department’s potential audience includes the media, the government, the surrounding community, donors, potential donors, and even faculty.
“We look after the philanthropy—[for example] if there are donors who want to give to a building or a project at UTM. We work with the fundraisers at the university on the communications material,” she continued. For example, Terrence Donnelly’s donation of $12 million helped establish the Terrence Donnelly Health Sciences Complex here at UTM.
Aside from attracting potential donors, government relations are one of the top priorities to the department, as the “campus is intricately tied to the City of Mississauga and Region of Peel”.
“All three campuses put [their own] imprint into marketing. One of the foci that UTM has—that the other two campuses may not—is [that] we’re really about city building,” explains Stirling. “Two years ago, we received a big investment from the City of Mississauga of $10 million.”
Additionally, the department focuses on developing UTM’s relations with the surrounding community. “By community relations, what I mean is that we work closely with the City of Mississauga [when] issues or problems pop up […] We used to have Mayor McCallion [visit often]—it was like her second home when she was in power with the City of Mississauga,” says Stirling.
“We now have this Brampton initiative—joining with the City of Brampton to have some kind of facility in Brampton down the road. So there’s a lot of government relations that happens on this campus and any of the communications portion comes to me and Wahl.”
UTM’s selling points
“One of the huge selling points is how critical we are to developing the human talent—the young people who are coming up and going to go out there and be leaders for the community—we’re developing that human talent,” says Stirling. “We’re really, in terms of the city building and reaching out to the international community, driving human talent, which is really critical here at UTM.”
To Wahl, UTM’s unique academic programs—such as IMI, the forensic sciences department, and MAM—help give it an edge over competing universities.
“Frankly, we [also] have a tremendous campus experience,” she adds. “People are always talking about the physical environment here at UTM and that it’s just so beautiful. There are so many rich student experiences that you can have, such as going off to Guatemala to learn about types of fair trade.”
The department’s work isn’t limited to reaching out to potential donors and building relations—occasionally, emergencies and controversies surface that have to be dealt with immediately.
“If there are any problematic things or emergency messaging things, or snow closures that happen and a group of people have to find out very quickly, that goes through our office as well,” says Stirling.
Regarding the recent online blog threats, Wahl comments, “It’s something that comes up. On a daily basis, we’re watching social media; we’re watching different blogs or subreddits.”
“When we were first made aware of [the threats], obviously we wanted to go out and check to see if there were any digital echoes. At that point, it had already been taken down from the original site,” says Wahl. “But we really wanted to check and see if the digital space had any other signs of that kind of language out there.
“One of the really great things about social media is that it allows us to open up that side of the conversation and really reach out to people, and engage people that way and to sort of take back the space when you see that kind of language being put out there. One [of the] positive things that came out of that was the sense of unity. That we were all going to stand up together to create a safe space.”
Donations and influence
One concern that comes to mind when thinking about the marketing and communications department is the tightrope between a donor’s funding and the influence they can exert.
When asked about how far a donor can influence academic programs at UTM, Stirling immediately shut down any lingering qualms. “There might be a misconception amongst students that when you solicit a donor’s support for something, those donors have a huge say in the whole academic realm of a program or of an institute,” she says. “And that’s wrong. The university has very, very strict guidelines on how involved a donor can be. And it’s very minimal—minimal to non-existent—in terms of directing any kind of academic program.
“Just because a donor gives money to a program or to an institute that doesn’t mean that that donor has any kind of say in terms of the direction of that academic program or institute.”
Wahl adds, “The academic priorities of the university [always] come first.”