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.