Telling the university story

If you have some time on your hands and nothing better to do, have a look at a university – any university – archive of press releases. You can usually find these in the ‘news’ section that is generally linked from the university home page. What do you see? What purpose do these press releases have?

Overwhelmingly, universities use press releases like the Soviet Union used reports on the last five-year-plan: stories of amazing successes and achievements, presented with all the compelling urgency of a report on meeting tractor production targets. I suspect that the readership figures are tiny, and a substantial proportion of the readers will be those named in each report. If you want some examples – and these are taken at random and are no better and no worse than hundreds of others, so I’m not targeting the institutions in particular – you can see a couple here and here. In fact, some of the items are interesting and even important, but will not achieve wider circulation by being put there.

If that’s what you find, what do you not find? Any kind of thoughtful analysis or advocacy of the university or higher education position. No assessment of pedagogy, no debate on current higher education problems and issues, no discussion about resourcing or strategy. In short, nothing that will attract casual readers looking for something to stimulate them; and nothing that will persuade anyone to support the institution or the sector.

This approach carries over into most universities’ public relations strategy. Think of an important or sensitive issue, and you can be sure that the university’s position on it is to keep very silent in public. This approach is in some ways understandable. Shouting over the airwaves can be risky if the topic is, say, current government policy, as politicians may find that irritating and may turn negative. But on the other hand, what has become alarmingly clear is that universities are not winning any of the arguments in the eyes of the public, in part because the public have no idea what case they are trying to make, or what arguments exist to back that case.

My advice would be this. If you have good news about research successes, human interest stories involving students, announcements about the weather, and so forth, send these directly to those likely to be interested or concerned, and include them in web pages that are specifically dedicated to the individuals or subject areas concerned. Don’t maintain a ‘news’ page which is really given over to advertisements. But do have a PR strategy that allows the university to make a case to advance its interests and those of the sector, and use it to raise awareness of critical issues

Secondly, put a face on it. I believe that one vital task for a university head is to present the institution’s case. It may sometimes seem ego-centric, but it can be very effective and can work well for the university. Deans, department heads, senior researchers and others can also be very effective in advancing the case.

Thirdly, be open and honest. Don’t have a news section that is full of soft focus stories about triumphs and achievements, but tell the institution’s story as it is, showing where it is aiming to go. Make it interesting, and make it engaging. Make it something that does not prompt readers to respond cynically.

Over recent months, as universities have increasingly been targeted aggressively by politicians and public commentators, I have been alarmed at how ineffective they have been in responding and in making a public case. I suspect some academics feel that a PR strategy somehow cheapens them. That is a dangerous view to hold; if we cannot persuade successfully, we may pay a very heavy price.

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3 Comments on “Telling the university story”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The very idea that I would inflict on myself that level of horses88te. Or that I will go LOOKING for it, are ya insane. I get the Cois Coiribe. And I read it. So don’t you think that’s enough pain for anyone.
    And what the heck did I ever do to you anyway !!!.

    Oh, NUI, Galway could ship last years Mag and none would know the difference or be any wiser.
    And anyway what I want from it is not news but gossip. Why can’t they get that. I don’t give a hurrah who met who at what for why.
    What I want to know is things like the Skeff going in the decorating stakes from multiple shades of black to Can-can dancers skirt. Granted that news 12 years out of date, but better late than never.
    Further knowing where the Wellwoman Clinic might not go astray either.

  2. Richard Says:

    While many of the points in the article are valid, I don’t think it gives due credit to the work of public relations professionals working in universities.

    If the website was the only channel for the news release, I could not find fault in what is being argued. However, there is much other work taking place: directly engaging with local and specialist media with relevant spokespeople from the university, lobbying work with stakeholders and the increasing role of social media has to play in the communications channels are some examples. This is generally not publicised on the corporate website, but often achieved greater results in terms of awareness-raising.

    For universities to move away from the status quo requires a mind-set change from academics, who often see good publicity as seeing themselves featured on an institution’s website or intranet, regardless of where else the marketing/public relations department managed to place the story. Maybe the forthcoming change to the Higher Education system caused by the tuition fee changes will be the catalyst for a re-evaluation in the role of public relations within universities, and the part the corporate website has to play in the marketing mix.

  3. Paddy Healy Says:

    Proposed university changes labelled “outrageous”
    IRISH TIMES Fri, Jan 07, 2011
    THE IRISH Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) has labelled as “outrageous” proposals for work practice changes relating to the Croke Park agreement which would affect academics.
    The preliminary NUI Galway document proposes a longer working year, student evaluation of staff and changes to academic freedom.
    “The proposals as tabled are absolutely outrageous,” Mike Jennings, general secretary of the federation said last night. “They would destroy the whole concept of a university . . . they are so bad that I really wonder if the university authorities at the highest level are even aware of the document because if by some miracle IFUT were to agree to them, it would no longer be a university as understood in any country in the world.”
    Meanwhile a former president of the Teachers Union of Ireland has called for a meeting of Irish academics to resist the proposals.
    “It is vital in a democracy that academics have the freedom to say what they want,” argued Paddy Healy, a lecturer in physics at DIT. “But they intend to remove tenure . . . Erosion of tenure is very fundamentally anti-democratic,” he said.

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