Linda Bonnin, ACU’s new senior vice president for marketing and strategic communications, is no stranger to unexpected challenges. In her role in senior leadership at three previous universities – most recently The University of Alabama – she has faced her share of obstacles and celebrated her share of triumphs.
But her transition to ACU presented challenges no one could have predicted. Less than a month into her new job, a global pandemic struck. A short time later, her husband was diagnosed with cancer. Despite the unusual start, Bonnin has forged ahead, leading several important initiatives for the university, including a new brand story and a completely re-imagined website, set for launch in January 2021.
Bonnin, who joined ACU’s senior leadership team in February, brings with her 23 years of experience in higher education and a trail of awards. At UA, she created Alabama’s first branding campaign, Where Legends Are Made, which was named the number one branding campaign in higher education internationally in 2019.
In this Q&A, she shares her thoughts on leadership, what she found surprising about ACU and how she has coped with this most eventful first year.
Tell us where you’re from.
I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. It’s a city with a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and gritty determination. Of course, it also has great music. In between Memphis and Abilene, I lived in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa and worked at two great SEC universities. A part of each of those cities still lives in my heart. We found lifelong friends in all four places.
Describe your job in a nutshell.
Others might disagree, but I think I have the best job on campus. There is nothing else I’d rather be doing. I have the privilege of working to promote the many successes of this university every day. We primarily work with the five a’s – academics, admissions, alumni, advancement and athletics – to tell their stories and raise our national profile. My team and I work hard to get these stories told through media placements, advertising, publications, digital marketing, social media and the web.
You’ve been a vice president or senior vice president at four universities. Would you share your thoughts on leadership?
Essentially, leadership is about listening, inspiring and empowering. I love this quote: “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” But I think the truest definition of leadership is, “Turn around – is anybody following you?” I didn’t make that up. A friend of mine did.
You joined ACU about three weeks before the pandemic hit. How has that impacted the way you’ve approached your new role?
Ordinarily, I would have spent a lot of time getting to know people across campus in a face-to-face meeting, and that became impossible. Our senior leadership group has spent hours on Zoom every day since March as we moved from emergency response to emergency management and then emergency planning as we prepared for fall. There’s nothing like a pandemic to get to know your team quickly. Being in the foxhole together creates a bond like no other.
What initially attracted you to ACU?
I was initially attracted to ACU because of its reputation, not only in Christian higher education, but also in general. I’m a graduate of Harding University so I’ve been aware of ACU for many years. I also heard ACU had become a rising player nationally, particularly after our move to Division 1 athletics. When I learned about this opportunity, I immediately saw so many possibilities. I began to envision myself in this very special place working with people who are phenomenally talented, passionate and committed to ACU’s students. It was a unique moment in time for me because I had not anticipated making a career move, but I felt a calling unlike anything I had ever experienced.
Has anything surprised you about ACU?
I’ve had some pleasant surprises. One is the transparency with which we operate here. I had worked in senior leadership roles at three large, public universities, but I had never worked at a private one before. For instance, it was a breath of fresh air to learn we had three Faculty Senate representatives at the table for our senior leadership team meetings. It’s refreshing to see how much we rely on each other’s expertise and input when making big decisions. We trust one another, and it shows in the way we operate here at ACU. Another wonderful surprise has been the way we surround one another with prayer and support. My husband was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer in July, and I have been awed at how the ACU family has wrapped its arms around us in so many ways. I think God led us to this wonderful place because he knew we were about to go through this difficult season, and he knew we would need a community of his people. He has blessed us with an army of angels in this unexpected fight.
It has been an eventful year for you. How have you coped?
It’s been the most interesting start to anything I’ve ever done in my career. First, COVID. Then, cancer. What’s been difficult is that I’ve had to continue to work remotely since my husband’s immune system is compromised. Normally, I would immerse myself in campus life and build relationships in a face-to-face setting so I could get to know my colleagues in their offices and over lunch. I would be interacting with students so I could learn their aspirations and what motivated them to attend ACU. So I’ve had to learn to work in new ways and keep my sense of humor intact. Mostly, I cope by just accepting that this is God’s plan, and he brought me here for a reason, so I don’t spend time asking why. I am grateful for our blessings and prayerful about the future.
What are the three biggest initiatives you’ve undertaken in your first year?
We’ll be launching a new website in January, and I’m super excited about that. Our website has been horribly broken the last few years, and I wanted to fix that as soon as possible. It’s been a heavy lift, but a necessary one. The website is the biggest marketing tool we have, and it’s critical for us to tell our story there and for people to find the information they’re looking for. The new website will be radically different from the current one.
We’ve spent a lot of time over the last four months ramping up the rest of our digital footprint as well. For instance, we have put a YouTube strategy in place. We know the first place prospective students go to get information about a university is their YouTube page. Number two is the website. So, we had to do something fast. We’re also putting strategies in place for all our social media channels to increase engagement and followers. Everything outward facing is getting an overhaul, and we’re aggressively entering the digital marketing and analytics space. If you can’t measure something, it might as well not have happened.
Additionally, I’ve been developing a brand story for ACU. It will be our overarching storytelling platform. It will reflect the heart of who ACU is and who we aspire to be every day. We did some research with students, faculty, staff and alumni last May and June to form the foundation of this approach. We’ll be able to align all our stories under this common theme so there’s no confusion about who we are and what we do. I’m excited to share it at the appropriate time.
What do you wake up thinking about?
I keep my phone by the bed and I send myself emails in the middle of the night. That lets me go back to sleep. Otherwise, I would just toss and turn because I wouldn’t want to forget that thought or idea. I’m a compulsive list maker so forgetting something is not my issue. I’m always wondering what ELSE should be on that list. I have a thirst to do more every day.
Finish this sentence: “I wish someone would invent ______.”
In line with that last answer, I wish someone would invent a day with more than 24 hours. There are never enough hours in the day to get everything accomplished that I want to. I start each weekend by telling my husband, “I’m going to relax this weekend.” He just laughs. If I’m not working, I’m reading to expand my knowledge. If I’m not reading, I’m writing. It’s a vicious cycle that never ends, but I like it that way.