State of the USC Address: Communications Officer Nico Waltenbury

Good evening everyone, and thank you for all of the applause so far for the many inspiring words I wrote that my colleagues have just read. Just kidding – with full credit to my team, communications is a shared exercise and each executive member actually does a phenomenal job writing their own material. If we haven’t had the chance to meet, my name is Nico Waltenbury and I am currently the USC’s Communications Officer.

My number one job is to protect, promote, and enhance the brand and reputation of the USC and its people. I divide my role into three main pillars: proactive communications through branding and storytelling; reactive communications through media and public relations; and ongoing strategic support of the entire executive team. Throughout the history of our organization, the equivalent of my role has changed significantly over time. While the fundamentals of governance, programming, and advocacy have remained consistent, it wasn’t that long ago when student leaders in my role were designing agenda books, buying newspaper and magazine ads, and sending paper mail outs to students. The final reports of my predecessors demonstrate the rapid transformation to a digital era of communication, with the introduction of, literally, the internet, followed by smartphones, mainstream social media, and now big data, gamification, and artificial intelligence – all of which has fundamentally changed the way we not only communicate with our students, but with each other in a modern society. 

In parallel with the professionalization of the communications industry, my role has evolved, even in the past five years. Once seen as a primarily a marketer for our operations and events, my role today has become an integral piece of the executive council and is involved in advocacy and initiative ideation from the onset, rather than joining the discussion only after decisions have been made as often occurred in the past. I want to thank my colleagues for providing the space that allowed me to join the conversations and for seeing communications as a vital function of our organization. To this end, I am excited to share that in the coming months we will expand our communications portfolio and add direct staff support to the Communications Officer in appreciation of the importance of our work. 

In short, without effective communications, there is no opportunity for the USC to succeed. If this year has taught our organization anything at all, it is that we have a significant journey ahead of us to overhaul our communications with our most important stakeholder – undergraduate students. When the Student Choice Initiative was announced, for the first time ever, we had to convince our students that we were worth the price they paid. While we have always been confident about the value of the services and programming we provide to students, we have historically done so quietly, with little need to sing our own praises and tell students who we are and what we do. 

Many of our students enjoyed the Orientation Program without knowing it is funded and provided in part by the USC. 

Many students ride the LTC to and from school every day without knowing the USC negotiates highly discounted rates on their behalf.

Many students buy their daily bagel at the Spoke or enjoy Rick’s every Wednesday without knowing the restaurant is owned and operated by the USC.

Many students rely on the undergraduate health and dental plan for their dental work and prescription drugs without knowing they are provided by the USC.

In the past, we were content providing these opportunities to students knowing that they were enhancing lives and experiences without demanding the recognition we deserved for our efforts. The period of ignorant complacency must come to an end if we all hope that our organization will continue to thrive for another 55 years. The single greatest threat to our organization is our relevance in the eyes of our students.

Tonight’s event is meant to provide us with an opportunity to discuss the state of our organization and I want to be frank with everyone in this room. Too many of our students don’t know who we are. They don’t know what we do. And they don’t appreciate the value we bring to this campus and the ways in which we enhance their undergraduate experience. The true state of our communications portfolio is that we have as an organization, for the first time, acknowledged the work we have ahead of us. Moving forward, every member of our organization must have an underlying goal of telling our story and promoting our brand. Students must know every time they interact with the USC – every Spoke bagel, every prescription filled, every concert, every support group, and every club meeting. 

Imagine the events and programs we could hold if we had the buy-in from 30,000 students. Imagine the advocacy power we could have if we could rally our members to demonstrate their position to relevant levels of government. Imagine the vibrant campus we could have if every student knew about the supports and community we offer and took advantage of the opportunities we provide. We have all the ingredients to be the best student association in North America if we just put the recipe together.

I am proud to say that this work has already begun. During Summer Academic Orientation, we welcomed over 1500 students and their families to the Wave for a USC morning reception. Throughout Orientation Week, our team had a high presence with sophs and students, and to help welcome the Class of 2023 to Western. In September, Google’s Instagram account featured one of our services with a post and story to their 11.4 million followers. In December, we served breakfast to over 1500 students in the Mustang Lounge. We have been featured by dozens of media outlets at the campus, local, provincial, and national levels. We have added branding to our Spoke takeout packaging. We overhauled the USC messaging in the campus tour guide manual. We publish regular email newsletters about the happenings of our organization. We have launched a brand journalism program to tell our own authentic story.

This year, we have aimed to be more responsive in our communications regarding community-wide issues such as cuts to OSAP, Broughdale safety, incidents of anti-black racism, the 2019 federal election, and off-campus property safety and security. Consistent with our values, we practiced honesty, transparency, and timeliness in our responses to these issues which have been well-received by our community throughout the year. 

We have recognized the importance of student feedback – as I hope you’ve noticed tonight – by using a number of strategies to solicit the perspectives of our students and guide our advocacy from the ground-up on important issues like local transit, off-campus housing, cuts to OSAP, student mental health support, and gender-based violence policies and procedures. We are committed to expanding our student feedback function, and thus have created a Student Feedback Intern to report to full-time staff beginning in May. Our goal is to build sustainable competencies and determine best practices on ethical data collection and analysis and transition our organization to be capable of evidence-informed decision making on every major issue we face. 

I’ve come to believe that our organization faces the best kind of challenge that a communications professional could desire – we are already doing amazing things that are positively impacting the lives of thousands of people, we just need to work on telling our story. Setting up sustainable processes and strategies to tell this story is my primary goal for the remainder of my term, and should be the first mission of next year’s Vice President Communications and Public Affairs.

This work may start with me, but it does not end at the communications portfolio. We need every one of you to be champions of our organization and help our students understand the value we bring to Western’s campus community. 

With purposeful efforts to tell the USC’s story, I truly believe that we will be a big step closer to achieving our mission and ensuring that students truly have the power to change the world. 

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