Marketers Changing The World: Emily Osborne, Director of Marketing Communications, University of Wollongong.
University of Wollongong (UOW) popped up our radars earlier this year as the first university in Australia to give staff the flexibility to work on Australia Day, instead of taking the day off in a show of respect for First Nations people.
Emily Osborne, Director of Strategic Marketing Communications at UOW, has worked at the university for 19 years and played a significant part in making this shift. UOW is bucking the trend in higher ed and has hosted a record number of overseas students this year with an increase of 40% vs. pre-COVID in 2019 (which was a record year in itself).
We were lucky to be able to pick Emily’s brain to understand why and how UOW made this bold move and her advice for other brands wanting to live their values.
1. Tell us about the move by UOW to give staff the option to work on Australia Day. Why was this the right move for the organisation and how did it happen?
The process started in 2021 when our first female Vice Chancellor Professor Patricia M. Davidson was appointed. She came to UOW from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she spent eight years as the Dean of the School of Nursing. She’s also Co-Secretary General of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centres for Nursing and Midwifery. She went back to study nursing as a mature age student after having her children.
When the Vice Chancellor first started our Indigenous community did a smoking ceremony to welcome her, which sparked her idea to do a smoking ceremony for our student graduation ceremonies. She asked about our Reconciliation Action Plan, “What are were doing to achieve it?”. That started to elevate our commitment to reconciliation.
We're a university that has an Indigenous name. A supplier we were working with said that they were working on Australia Day and companies like Telstra and others had started to do the same. I said to the Vice Chancellor, “We should do this” and I spoke to HR and the system didn’t allow it. We believe in academic freedom and with the Vice Chancellor’s leadership we decided we needed to stand for reconciliation and do something. And so in 2022, we did it.
2. What was your strategy in communicating this move?
We decided people could make their own choice. The HR systems wouldn't have to be perfect, it was more about doing something and making a grand gesture to show we actually do stand for reconciliation.
Universities have a role in helping communities make sense of what's going on in the world.
We were one of the first universities to sign the Uluru statement from the heart. Our Indigenous strategy unit are running forums on the Voice to Parliament. We’re not perfect, but our decision on Australia Day elevated the discussion.
We communicated to staff and students first, then put out a media release and thought about the timing. We posted on social media on Australia Day but didn't want it to be tokenistic, we thought the act was more important. Our messaging was clear to not judge other people for their decision. The fact that we were the first uni was a surprise that came after. We got a great response, and I was really surprised by the media attention. It was genuinely a really moving moment because it was about recognition for our Indigenous colleagues.
3. What would be your advice to marketers and organisations who are afraid of being political so sit on the fence when it comes to important issues?
If you don’t actually take a stand, then you stand for nothing. I think it's important as marketers and communicators to understand what your organisation's values are and to bring forward opportunities to demonstrate them. Opportunities to activate and live the organisations beliefs. It comes down to good leadership and leaders who have strong values.
Without any values, you've got no point of difference. It's like being a person with no personality.
4. What’s a brand you most admire and why?
I really admire Patagonia. They are a values-driven organisation in everything they do. Their products are highly functional, but their communications are great. They’re very consistent with their storytelling and branding. It’s a brand I connect with.
5. UOW has been very successful in a difficult category, with your record number of international student enrolments this year. What’s the secret sauce?
We’ve really worked very hard to prioritise strategy in such a large organisation. Our university has nine campuses in Australia and global campuses in Dubai, Hong Kong and three in Malaysia. We’ve been in Dubai for 30 years.
Our secret sauce is our people. Universities are very large service organisations, so without our people, we’re nothing. And it's not perfect by any means. We’ve been through a very rocky period with COVID, but we’re on an upward trajectory due to our prioritising and shifting resources and being able to pivot and adapt to student expectations. From getting everything online to students now wanting to be back on campus, we’ve had to shift things to make that happen. And in communications, giving more visibility to our leadership and their values and commitment to culture. Our people and their passion to deliver for students and communities are the reason for our success.
Photo credits: University of Wollongong