Editor’s Note: The controversy over American University’s WONK campaign rages on with a second op-ed from AU alum Carter Gibson. After the university held an ‘Open Forum’ this month on the WONK branding concept – an event that was prohibited from being live streamed – many alums and current students alike took to social media to respond to what transpired that Friday afternoon. Gibson went a step further and lined up a meeting with the woman behind WONK, Teresa Flannery, to discuss the campaign face-to-face.

There’s a saying every good writer should know: kill your darlings. It’s advice paraphrased from Faulkner suggesting authors remove elements of a story that are special to them, but do not resonate with a wider audience. The idea here being that a creator can become so infatuated with a particular concept that the appeal of their work often gets lost. Good authors, marketers, and designers understand that the ideas they’re most proud of may not be the most effective.

When I sat down with Terry Flannery, American University’s Vice President of Communications, it was clear to me that the word ‘WONK’ was both her and AU’s marketing darling. There are parts of the WONK Campaign worth applauding, but AU needs to put aside its pride, curb its determination, and realize that ‘WONK’ isn’t going to happen. The good news is that, after an ‘Open Forum’ and personal meeting with Terry, I think AU realizes that too.

WONK is a hot topic both on and off AU’s campus. From front-page Reddit posts to tweets to articles in AU’s student newspaper The Eagle, WONK is still on blast following Anderson Cooper’s kerfuffle on New Year’s.

Students have been so vocal about their issues with the WONK campaign that AU held an ‘Open Forum’ recently to address their concerns. I put ‘Open Forum’ in quotations because AU decided not to live stream the presentation, instead relegating The Eagle to live tweeting. The decision to block a live stream exemplified the lack of transparency and communication students have come to associate the campaign with since its launch in 2010. AU said recording the forum would make students uncomfortable and discourage honest feedback. The students’ honest feedback was that they disagreed.

The omission of a live stream didn’t start things off on a positive note and, to anyone following along on Twitter, it didn’t get any better. Students weren’t thrilled with a 4% increase in the conversion rate over four years (19% to 23%), the 40% approval rating of the WONK ads, or the 10% increase in freshmen attending AU who chose the school as their first choice (44.7% to 54.4%). Students were unconvinced that the WONK Campaign over an increase in the quality of the school’s programs was to credit.

At the forum, students said they were embarrassed. A transfer student said it took more than two months to understand what a WONK was, and others voiced that a single word couldn’t define them. What was clear to me was that almost all of the negative criticism was specifically about ‘WONK.’ Students couldn’t disassociate the word – which is defined as derogatory by Google – from the campaign.

AU officials acknowledged this controversy by voicing that they were concerned about how many people associated the word ‘nerdy’ to ‘WONK.’ They said that they would have to decide in 2015 if they were going to continue the ‘WONK’ branding. It was the first time American University seemed to admit that ‘WONK’ was, well, too wonky.

Satisfied with how many of my fellow alums and current students were willing to stand up to AU, I sat down with Terry Flannery a few days later to discuss the WONK campaign face-to-face for the first time. We started by finding common ground, specifically about the pillars that hold up the campaign.

The concept of knowing something backwards and forwards? Great. Becoming specialized experts in unique fields? Sign me up. Understanding that we can’t and shouldn’t compete with the uber-formal GW and Georgetown? Cool. Using D.C. to our advantage? Yes.

Differentiating ourselves is good, and the ideas behind WONK are good ones, but we couldn’t continue our conversation without addressing how painful of an experience the campaign has been for me. Terry seemed to sincerely empathize with me as I told her stories about my coworkers laughing at AU’s branding campaign, especially after I mentioned that I felt my two (very expensive) degrees were tarnished.

AU’s refusal to kill its darling ‘WONK’ unnecessarily continues a volatile student movement against the campaign. There’s a fix here – getting rid of the word ‘WONK’ – but so far AU has refused to stray away from the name. While it was nice of Terry to try to understand the damaging affect the campaign has had on my relationship with my alma mater, she was not shy about saying how proud she was of ‘WONK’ and the campaign.

That’s not to say that the university isn’t open to change. Sure, AU has a “stay the course” attitude about ‘WONK’, but speaking to Terry proved to me that AU is willing to refine the campaign. Here are some telling lines from our talk last week (and I’m paraphrasing since this conversation couldn’t be recorded):


Carter Gibson: American University has a big problem when its most robust branding campaign to date can’t create organic advocates as it has created vocal dissenters like myself.

Terry Flannery: There are, but if you keep being so negative and outspoken you won’t see differing opinions.

CG: Are you saying that me being outspoken is silencing other students?

TF: I’m saying that you may be so difficult to communicate with that students won’t share their different opinions with you and you’ll be removed from the conversation.


As our conversation continued, I asked her more about the future of the ‘WONK’ concept and whether the university would continue to use it as a part of its branding campaign.


CG: Listen, I think a lot of the campaign is great, but the students can’t get over the word ‘WONK.’ Are you going to get rid of it?

TF: Students are about 50/50 on the word and we know we need to refine the campaign. We’ll have to decide in 2015 if we’re going to continue using the ‘WONK’ branding.


This statistic in particular really stood out to me. It’s my assumption that there are two different questions included in the WONK surveys : ‘How do you feel about the ads as a whole?’ and ‘How do you feel about the word ‘WONK?’. Though she didn’t really say anything aloud, I think Terry was trying to insinuate to me that the campaign is working (sort of), but that the word it not. It was very, very nice to hear. She even said that the campaign has been least popular with current students and alumni, which made me feel better.

‘WONK’ doesn’t feel organic or natural and continues to alienate people like me. More and more ‘WONK’ feels like an idea that the university is fixated on, rather than being the right direction to take. It’s a classic darling, and it needs to die a quick and painless death. Terry seemed to give me hope that it will before too long, but I’ll continue to put pressure on university officials until ‘WONK’ is no longer.

I feel like public enemy number one to AU’s marketing department, but I’m okay with that. Marketing campaigns are, and should be edgy or polarizing, but ‘WONK’ fails to be effective or creative enough to leave students who don’t like the campaign saying, “But at least I can respect it.”

There may be hope for students yet, but first AU needs to kill ‘WONK’. Come on. Do it AU. Kill your darling.


Sources: The Eagle