Risky Greek Life Story

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by Matt Mattson

"I'm just trying to keep everyone alive, stay out of the news, and keep everyone safe."

This is a phrase you might have found yourself saying some version of as you approach this new semester. 

You are a fraternity/sorority leader on your campus, or maybe you're a student affairs professional who works with Greek Life. Everything in your world is probably revolving around one thing right now: MAKING GREEK LIFE SAFER. As it should be.

This is important to you not just because you want to stay out of the news, but because you understand there are very real challenges facing Greek Life, and we have to find new, innovative, "out-of-the-box" ways to address them. You know the educational programs about sexual assault, alcohol, drugs, and safety are important, but they can't be the whole answer. You know that policies, as well-intentioned as they are, sometimes feel counter-productive. And you're stuck wondering what in the world you're supposed to do next.

I'm going to offer an answer that I truly believe in, but that will sound ridiculous at first. Will you stick with me to hear my rationale? If not, you've probably already quit, so I'll just jump right in. Here's the answer: Our ugly story is making our organizations uglier. We are in a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle and we don't even know it. Let me explain.

When a high school student first encounters your institution's "brand" of fraternity/sorority, how much control do you currently have over that brand experience... that story? Probably very little. You're not telling the story, it's being told about you. 

When a high school student enters into a recruitment process at your school, how much education have they already received about what it means to live a values-driven, responsible, leadership-oriented life as a fraternity/sorority member? Probably zero. We're not even trying to educate high schoolers about us until the moment they actually start to join. 

In fact, what expecations does a new student at your university enter their first year experience with regarding Greek Life? Probably lowest-common-denominator stuff like "parties," "fun," "crazy," and worse. Right? We're just accepting the fact that students arrive with those negative expectations, and assuming we can't do anything about it. 

Our fraternities and sororities are FUELED by our newest members. It's one of the oldest cliches in the field that our new members are the "life blood" of our organizations. Well, since we are currently doing very very little to influence potential members' perceptions of Greek Life and expectations of Greek Life BEFORE they become new members, we're infusing BAD BLOOD into our organizations. Our newest members show up to recruitment expecting the worst of us and ready to manifest the worst of us through their own actions. And we're doing practically NOTHING to influence that before they get to us. We're infusing bad blood. 

Or, if you'd prefer another metaphor, we're feeding the beast junk food and expecting it to perform like a thoroughbred. 

We truly believe that a PART of the solution for fraternities and sororities is taking control of the way our story is being told to students as young as their junior year of high school. We need to realize that our marketing (or almost universally, our complete lack of marketing) is currently a part of the CAUSE of some of our biggest problems. High school students show up to our universities in the fall thinking the worst of us because we're not doing anything at all to influence that.

We have to take control of the story being told about us. We have to EDUCATE and CHANGE THE EXPECTATIONS of high school students about our organizations well before they start pouring into our recruitment processes.  

When we talk about high-level strategic marketing with our clients, it isn't normally about getting people to realize that we do service and philanthropy, so they should think good things about us. Our strategic marketing is more often focused on changing the way we're feeding our organizations. If we can change the "buyer pool" -- if we can put higher-performing lower-risk already-prepared new members into our recruitment process who have high expectations of what our organizations are supposed to be, and who are educated on how to avoid dangerous chapters, we can change the whole system. If we feed our organizations with vulnerable, ill-prepared, high-risk, desperately-seeking-affirmation PNMs, we're setting everyone up (our chapters and our PNMs) for dangerous failure. 

It's time to truly take control of the story being told about you. We're asking you to take action. Gather together your council and chapter leaders, and start thinking about the ways you can educate and influence students well before they show up for their first fall recruitment experience. Our team is working on some new ways we'll be doing that for the whole industry this year, and we work with individual campuses all over North-America to build strategies for them to do the same for their own students. This is why we do what we do. This is what "marketing" is about to us... it isn't about prettier brochures, fancier tables, or getting lots of "likes" on insta. It's about strategically improving our organizations through better storytelling.