A word with the new face of College Relations

By David Hertz

New Director of Communications Amy Phenix was hired this week to replace Doug Stone in the office of College Relations. Phenix, an ’88 Macalester alum, spent the last twenty years working in communications and marketing in higher education, political advocacy, and the health care industry. The Mac Weekly sat down with Phenix to talk about getting settled in her new job, getting re-acquainted with her old college, and how she’ll handle reporting the news of Macalester.The Mac Weekly: You experienced Mac years ago as a student. Why do you want to come back and work here?

Amy Phenix: I think professionally this is certainly an incredible opportunity to try to improve the reputation of the institution, which I think has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades since I was here. On a personal level, it’s also a very exciting opportunity. I had an incredible experience here and truly believed that the experience I got here was transformative to me as a person, and has really led me back here.

How are you planning to get reacquainted with the college?

I want to spend a lot of time on campus. My goal is not to hole up in my office-its to meet with students and faculty and staff, understand what the priorities are, what the goals are of the institution, what the challenges are. Certainly I think this is a very critical moment for the institution with the capital campaign underway and at the same time in the broader world we’re facing a really challenging economy which I’m sure is going to put pressure on students’ willingness to pay for a private college education, so I think it’s going to be more important than ever to continue to articulate the value of a Macalester education and the need for people to step up and give back to the institution.

What do you see as the purpose of College Relations at Macalester?

I think that the communications function in our organization is really designed to support the key stakeholders, and at Macalester that’s going to be the students, the faculty, the administration, the alumni, and helping those leaders figure out how do we best get our story told. And Macalester has an amazing story to tell, and a lot of people know about it but more people could tell about it. It’s really that story telling function of the institution, and I think if you do that well, and you are honest and transparent and relevant in your communications you can really inspire and compel people to action.

What do you think are going to be your major challenges in this job?

I don’t know yet what kinds of challenges there are going to be because I haven’t started yet, and certainly that’ll be something I’ll look to do within my first weeks, months, on the job is to understand those and to have a point of view of what I think the biggest ones are. I think from my generation of alumni, I think more of us need to get involved, more of us need to reconnect to the institution. I think certainly, again in the economy, every not-for-profit or higher education organization that is looking for [donations] will be challenged to find those dollars, and I think the challenge is to articulate the value of Macalester education versus the education at a state school, and how do we do that in a way that ensures we get the caliber of students that we want here.

What’s your philosophy in communications?

In general, I will always advocate that one’s communications need to be honest, timely, and relevant. I’ve done a lot of work in crisis communications and I’ve worked in a lot of different situtaitons that have been very very high profile, negative kind of media environments, and I’ve learned to always tell people, your communications are only going to represent what your institution does or says. If you have a communications problem, you have a problem, no matter what your communications do. The problem is, you can’t hide behind communications if there actually is a policy or procedural problem that the institution needs to fix, or an integrity problem.

So if there was such a problem you would see it as your job to tell the community about it?

I think that our job is to certainly be responsive to what the community cares about and what the community is looking for, and to that end to always be transparent. And if the institution did make a mistake, and we needed to make a change, I hope I would recommend that we would step up and do that too. I think people and institutions that are willing to admit mistakes, it’s the first thing you need to do to rebuild credibility and trust in times when maybe that’s been damaged.

Where do you see the line between reporting what goes on at Macalester and promoting its image, if there is such a line in your job?

That is a good question, whether there is such a line. I tend to think of my job much more holistically, and I think if you do a good job being honest and transparent in your communications, that in and of itself has promotional value in it.