UA’s new university relations chief setting course in first month

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 253 views 

If she'd had a career goal starting out two decades ago, Laura Jacobs met it a month ago.

Earning a double major in English and communications at the University of Arkansas in her hometown of Fayetteville, she simply was looking for work. She took a job as editorial assistant with a local newspaper, the Northwest Arkansas Times, where she answered the phone and typed obituaries and wedding announcements into the computer system. On weekends, she waited tables at the now-closed 36 Club restaurant on Dickson Street.

Jacobs had taken no journalism classes, but then-editor Mike Masterson moved her into writing occasional articles and book reviews, as well as graphic design, laying out pages. Then she spent about a year in design and advertising for the newly begun Northwest Arkansas Business Journal.

The graphics skills brought Jacobs to UA's University Relations office in 1998, where her responsibilities regularly were increased. She left in fall 2011, returning to the school's communications and public relations hub Jan. 27 as its executive. The title is associate vice chancellor for university relations. Several weeks in, it's still too fresh for a full assessment, but she moves with confidence in her spacious office in the renovated 1942 Davis Hall on the north side of campus.

Yes, Jacobs is the person hired to help right the Razorback public relations ship after its captain was sacked last summer.

In late August, Chris Wyrick, UA vice chancellor for university advancement, fired John Diamond. The act came in the aftermath of the discovery of a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall in UA's fundraising arm, the Division of University Advancement. Diamond disputed how UA should work with news media on reporting the deficit and its causes.

That 26-month leave from the university was spent as founding director of communications for Bentonville's Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Jacobs was asked to apply for the UA opening but was hired only after a nationwide search, she said in a recent interview.

"I hope that I demonstrated that I was the most qualified kid,” she said.

She learned communications, from writing to design, after her formal education, crediting Masterson and fellow employees at the Times. He remembers her well, saying, "Laura is bright, capable and someone who is not only reliable but knowledgable of the media and its needs."

While she sees herself as having been directionless until joining UA in 1998, she took advantage of its employee tuition discount to earn a master's in higher education administration in 2005.

"This is obviously a position that I had aspired to," of the executive post. "Once I got here (in '98) I really became immersed in the university relations at the University of Arkansas, bitten by the higher education bug."

For a few years prior to 2011 she worked at UA part-time when her two children were young. The Crystal Bridges position was an opportunity to help create its in-house communications department, whose tasks were outsourced prior to the museum's opening.

A by-product of working in Bentonville for about 26 months is that Jacobs sees how the cities of Northwest Arkansas are knitting together: "As the region grows, it gets smaller. It makes it a lot easier, and more fluid, to act as a region."

Her plan is to hold the course with no immediate plans of expansion in University Relations. She wants to refine the tasks it already holds: all university communications and media relations, including social media; marketing and branding; promoting and publicizing fundraising; supervision of website design and development; university design, photography and videography production; and on-campus crisis communications.

"Because I was here before, I think I was able to hit the ground running in a way that nobody would be able to," Jacobs said. "I can only imagine coming in without any sort of context to know who to contact, who's over who, the different structures, the 'who's on first.'"

"Before I ever even got here, my calendar was set (by her assistant) for the first three weeks, immediately, for the purposes of reacquainting, reintroducing myself to the people on campus, deans and different vice chancellors and vice provosts. And I'm not done. I'm still making my rounds.

"I'm introducing myself to, or reintroducing myself, to people to get their impressions, to get their sense on the state of the university from a global perspective and then more of a granular perspective on how it affects their world. I'm asking for direct feedback. How have we been serving you, how can we serve you better. What do I need to know to help me do my job. … Getting to know Chris Wyrick and understand his leadership style."

Chancellor G. David Gearhart made Wyrick vice chancellor in February 2013, replacing Brad Choate, who lost the position for his role in his division's budget deficit. Wyrick had been executive director of the Razorback Foundation, the 501(c)3 nonprofit which runs fundraising for UA's department of athletics.

Acting as chief executive won't be a sudden shift for Jacobs. Although she began in the office as a graphic designer, her titles indicated supervisory duties: manager of marketing and advertising services, then manager of development communications, director or associate director of university relations and editor of Arkansas (the alumni magazine), and for her last year before leaving for the museum, senior director of strategic communication.

"I'm not one who sits next to the designer and points to what should be set what," Jacobs said, "as long as our communications is consistent and well-branded."

"This was a comfortable transition for me. I feel comfortable with knowing what our purpose is. … I think my job is making sure that we all have the same song sheet so that we know what's expected. We know what we're trying to communicate. We're what we're trying to communicate visually in addition to verbally in writing," Jacobs said. "I think that is my responsibility, to give everyone in this building the tools they need to advance those goals."

University Relations employs about 36 people, she said.

"We have a great team, a lot of talent, a lot of loyalty."

The budget under which Jacobs operates does not include salaries for the communications staff of separate schools and colleges, such as business, law, engineering and architecture. But the directors of those meet as a group weekly with Jacobs.

"We gather around the table, and we discuss, we collaborate, we talk. We make sure that we're problem-solving together. While they may not report in to me. They are not part of our budget. We may not be paying their salary. We have a decentralized model but we have centralized support. … We are stronger when we work together."

Jacobs pointed to a specific UA goal, to be nationally ranked. That bar has been set for many years, but Gearhart pointedly said last September, "It is our goal to be ranked as a top 50 public research university by 2021."

He has two metrics in mind, she said. One is the annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report. The other is the annual report "Top American Research Universities" from the Center for Measuring University Performance, which is coordinated by four universities from across the country.

"Our purpose is to advance the institution's goals and objectives. So what we do is driven by that. That is how we deploy our resources, spend our time."

The Advancement Division's budget deficit caused a hiring freeze. It remains in place and Jacobs had no response for when she might get to beef up her office.

"In a perfect world, we could do more things if we had more people. But also to understand we need to be good stewards of the resources we have. It is incumbent on ourselves to work smarter, to find efficiencies, to be more strategic, to use our time, to prioritize what we are working on."

Jacobs by implication is the university's chief spokesman, but she won't be quoted in news reports often. Journalists with queries are sent to her staff specialists who in turn can make arrangements with faculty members in those fields. General questions, perhaps on campus-wide subjects such as winter closings, are routed to Steve Voorhies, manager of media relations.

She is, however, the go-to person for top management.

"If someone had a question for the chancellor or the vice chancellors, that probably would go through me. … Day-to-day media relations go with the specialists. Where it requires expertise, we go to the experts."