Emory president honored for higher education advocacy

People don’t trust universities based on just their name – they trust them “because of the people who bring them to life,” Emory University President Gregory L. Fenves told members of the Public Relations Society of America in a keynote address to the Counselors to Higher Education Section Senior Summit.

Those people include faculty, students, staff, alumni – and the university’s president, Fenves noted. “In order to lead, you as an individual need to be present, truly present,” he said. “Your personality, your ideas, your quirks, your interests, even your failures and vulnerabilities – they need to be shared with your community in some way.

Fenves addressed the PRSA summit Aug. 10 in Washington, DC, where he received the national organization’s Advocate for Higher Education Award. The honor recognizes a leader who has effectively used strategic communication and public relations to advance the mission of higher education.

“President Fenves clearly has harnessed the power of strong strategic communications in furthering the mission of Emory University,” says Sheena McFarland, chair of the Counselors to Higher Education section. “We are delighted to honor President Fenves for his support of public relations on his campus as he showcases the importance of communications to further the goals of higher education.”

Fenves has made communications one of his signature priorities at Emory. He has implemented several changes, from reorganizing the school’s Communications and Marketing Division to focus on strategic communications and marketing for Emory to launching Emory’s first comprehensive marketing campaign at the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Delivering the Patrick Jackson Memorial Lecture, Fenves highlighted the essential role communications communications plays in advancing a university’s mission and moving communities forward together, as well as the importance of leaders speaking directly to the constituents they serve.

When he became president of the University of Texas at Austin in 2015 and then Emory in 2020, Fenves recalled, he resolved that leadership communications would come from him or other university colleagues rather than be sent as unsigned university announcements. “People in those communities, for better or worse, would always know who was responsible for the updates they were receiving,” he said.

“You may never get the chance to meet many of the tens of thousands of people whom you serve, but you better make sure they know you,” he said. “That’s the only way to accomplish anything of significance in leadership – with a foundation of trust and understanding.”

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