William "Bill" Plate said the University of Montana may have world-class faculty, but if it isn't proactive about sharing that message, the information won't find its way to prospective students and parents.
"Unless we're telling their stories, nobody is going to know," Plate said.
Plate, whose resume notes he has been vice president of communication and chief marketing officer for Coastal Carolina University since 2013, is the fourth and final candidate to interview at UM for its open vice president post.
UM President Seth Bodnar restructured the role to combine enrollment and communications oversight, and Plate has experience in marketing and communications.
In a public forum Wednesday, he said one reason he's attracted to the position is he believes the combination of communications and enrollment will be a trend in higher education. Plate, who has a master of business administration from Florida Atlantic University, said he doesn't like to compare universities to business, but he sees similarities.
"We are being asked to operate more like a business these days when it comes to our finances," Plate said.
In that regard, he believes it's smart to combine sales and marketing staff with enrollment counselors, as the latter also must function as a sales team. "It does make sense for these two groups to come together."
UM had asked finalists to address one of its enrollment challenges in 10 to 15 minutes and then take audience questions. Plate delivered a presentation of more than 30 minutes, albeit with an apology, and in it, he explained how UM should elevate its brand by focusing on its identity and the promise it's making to students.
"What is the essence of who we are? Who we are now, and who (would we) like to be?"
Plate, whose resume notes he holds a bachelor of fine arts from Rochester Institute of Technology, said enrollment at Coastal Carolina has increased over the past five years, and though he credits the entire university with the effort, he said his marketing and communications team plays a vital role.
Data from Coastal Carolina show 10,663 students enrolled in 2017 compared to 8,706 in 2010, with steady increases through the years and relatively even incoming freshman classes.
At UM, Plate said he would use creative storytelling to support the institution with video as a key medium, and he said he's been successful with storytelling in his career. He said many people think of a university's brand as the message it's pushing out, but he said it's also about perception.
As such, he recommended UM evaluate whether a gap exists between its brand and the perception of that brand and then design its marketing and enrollment materials to target prospective students and parents. He also suggested a SWOT analysis of UM's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in part to ensure the right messages are going out to the right audiences at the right times.
One UM staff member said the ideas Plate offered seemed appropriate for the long term and asked how the candidate would immediately help recruiters with their work in September if he was starting in July.
Plate, who has an associate of applied science in graphic arts and advertising from Finger Lakes Community College in New York, said he believes some of his ideas would actually work for the short term, such as creating stories for social media. However, he said he would look to the recruiters as the experts.
"What tools do you need as recruiters ... that you don't think that you have? Those should be the priority," Plate said.
As a new employee, he said he would face a "small learning curve," but he said any candidate will encounter a learning curve whether in enrollment or communications. And he said he's equipped to help recruiters address challenges.
"I am a creative problem solver," Plate said.
One faculty member in music said the College of Visual and Performing Arts is strong, but it's not well represented in UM materials. As such, it's creating its own marketing materials to reach the hundreds of prospective students it collects data on during campus visits.
Professor Margaret Baldridge said employees in music submit the information to recruiters but don't know if it's used. So she said she paid to create a postcard out of her own pocket, and she wanted to know how Plate would help market the arts.
At Coastal Carolina, Plate said he runs a department that's set up like an internal ad agency or public relations office that works on behalf of the entire institution. Campus departments come to his team like internal clients, he said, and the first question his office asks is whether the client has a budget.
He said he doesn't want to produce a $10,000 plan for a $2,000 budget. Plate said he does set aside some of his office's own funds to help departments, and he already pays for digital billboards that he can change, so he would assess the resources available to help.
In his current role, he said much of his time is spent on reputation management and ensuring the university tells its side of the story. And he said whether campus stories are about faculty or students, a university must produce its own news because he said traditional outlets have a different mission.
"They may not be able to tell all of our positive news stories," Plate said.
In his resume, Plate outlined instances where his work has engaged digital audiences and also increased application numbers:
• At Coastal Carolina, he established a partnership with a digital media company that led to a 30 percent increase in impressions, click-throughs and conversions without a budget increase.
• He implemented a social media strategy that increased Facebook "likes" from 3,000 to 50,000 and Twitter followers from 300 to 15,000.
• As director of university marketing and creative services for Florida Atlantic University from 2005 to 2012, he planned and launched a campaign to boost admissions, and the number of freshmen applications for 2011 doubled from the previous year.
In his resume, Plate notes he served as assistant project manager for Visual Information Services at the Dover Air Force Base from 1999 to 2004 with "U.S. Government SECRET Clearance." He's a member of the American Marketing Association and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, according to his resume.
The UM search committee meets Friday to discuss the candidates and make recommendations to the president.