Communicators’ huddle seeks compelling ways to tell Berkeley’s story

“We have to find new ways to engage very seriously” with public skepticism, and for that important task “no group is more suited than you,” UC Berkeley’s new chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, told a large gathering Thursday at International House.

BC2 attendees

Jon Schainker of Educational Technology Services shares tips on smartphone video production.

The occasion was the second annual Berkeley Communications Conference (BC2), which brought together some 200 campus staff who work to convey the essence of UC Berkeley, its student life and its contributions to the world, to internal and external audiences. The conference was sponsored by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs and co-chaired by Eric Craypo, communications manager for Recreational Sports, and Bernie Geuy, CalCentral project manager.

Storytelling as the basis for effective communications work was a recurring theme. Morning keynote speaker David Riemer, a guest lecturer at the Haas School of Business, referred to research suggesting that storytelling “can activate the brain” in ways that fact-laden writing, designed to persuade, “simply can’t.”

He cited Pixar’s Toy Story 3, the world’s highest-grossing animated film to date, as a movie whose success rests largely on a compelling story — that of a collection of toys with an existential crisis. It takes Pixar about five years to make a movie, he said, and four of the five can be spent developing the story.

Riemer, a former ad-agency head and Internet marketing executive, showcased communications pieces by universities and companies that have figured out how to elegantly convey their value.

Berkeley, too, has much that distinguishes it from peer institutions, “if we’re not afraid to talk about it,” he said.

Brand new

BC2 was also an opportunity to discuss ongoing work to tell a forward-thinking, compelling story about the university using a common, recognizable look and feel.

old and new versions of brochure

Two versions of a Graduate Division brochure — the new one, on the right, incorporating design guidelines found at

The success of that work lies in “what you do,” said Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs. “We must take back our narrative and create emotional connections through our work. You are key to that effort. It’s never going to happen from the center.”

Last year her office created a toolbox of resources  for campus communicators. The tools include a story arc, standardized identity resources, a photo-sharing service and distinctive design elements. More than 200 campus staff have been trained to use the tools and resources, and many have begun to incorporate these elements into their communications efforts, as evidenced by new websites, brochures, even roadside billboards.

Staff showcased examples during a panel discussion facilitated by Ram Kapoor, Public Affairs’ executive director of marketing and digital communications. Kasia Allen, Graduate Division assistant dean for external relations, compared grad-student recruitment materials chock full of facts and numbers (the “before”) with visually appealing new materials designed with “less is more” in mind.

Berkeley “is an environment where individuality and uniqueness is valued,” observed panelist Marty Takimoto, director of marketing communications for Residential and Student Services Programs. At the same time, “we’re all part of the same university,” which argues for adoption of some common design elements, he said.

Practical advice

Staff involved in campus communications efforts range from those working on a diverse team of designers, writers, marketers and fundraisers to individuals with other duties who have been drafted to create a website, say, or curate social media.

cartoonist's sketch of Writing for Web workshop

Graphic notes from a Writing for the Web workshop given by Imagineering. (Sketch by Lloyd Dangle)

Brian McClendon, a program administrator at the Center for Computational Biology, is among the latter. Having already set up several websites for the research institute, he hopes to spearhead a more concerted web-development effort, with faculty and students helping to generate content. “This helps,” he said of the opportunity to network with campus peers.

Rachel Voss, program and office coordinator for the Blum Center for Developing Economies, has not studied communications but is helping out with that work, and came to pick up pointers.

Practical tips were freely shared at breakout sessions on social media, strategic-communications, web content for mobile platforms, writing for the web, DIY branding and how to make and distribute videos using a smartphone.

Successful efforts to engage campus students using social media was the focus of one panel. Berkeley senior Adelyn Baxter, a Daily Californian staff member, talked about the use of live blogging as part of the student newspaper’s election-night coverage last fall. Ashley Villanueva, of Undergraduate Admissions, described a popular Flickr photo contest for new admits.

The day ended with a lively keynote by Guy Kawasaki, author, former Apple Computer chief evangelist and current Cal parent, speaking on “enchantment” — his term for the “art of changing hearts, minds and actions.”

Presentations and learning materials from conference will be available online later this week. The toolkit for campus communicators is available on the brand website.