Posted tagged ‘public relations’

A web of confusion

January 28, 2011

As I have noted previously, these days the main ‘shop window’ in which a university presents its programmes, facilities and services to a wider world is its worldwide web homepage. Anyone wanting to make contact with it is likely to look there first, and therefore it is very important that the institution presents itself well. A few weeks ago I had a look at the Irish university websites, and on the whole I did not think they were well designed. Yesterday I investigated the home pages of 14 British universities. I am inclined to conclude that, like their Irish counterparts, they mostly don’t get it right.

Here are some of the key problems.

First, what almost all (except one, to which I return in a moment) get terribly wrong is the sheer busy-ness of the page. Generally it is full of small print and densely formatted text, with a vast array of links that are not usually organised in a user-friendly way. It is my view that a homepage should not give more than nine or ten clickable links, and that these should be presented in a visually accessible way. In fact, most have dozens. For example, this university gives you 57 links on the homepage, not organised into any coherent groups. This world famous university has 62, though admittedly the links are clustered in a somewhat more logical way. The one that gets it absolutely right is the University of Warwick, with only nine links on the homepage.

Secondly, almost no university seems to be able to resist the idea that it should publish self-congratulatory news stories on the homepage. Of course this is simply a form of PR, but not a useful one. It is not an effective way of publishing press releases (journalists don’t scour university websites looking for these), while those who go to a university website will almost always find them a distraction. They serve absolutely no purpose, except in very rare cases of stories that people may genuinely want to have brought to their attention.

Thirdly, most of the websites were very hard to navigate. I asked a friend to look at each of them and try to get as much information as possible about undergraduate examinations, including exam dates, initially without using the ‘search’ function. In the case of three of them he was unable to get any information at all by following links. Interestingly, in one of these even the search function didn’t help, while in the other two it brought so many results that it took him ages to work out which of them was of use to him. Seven of the 14 universities seemed to publish no information about examination dates (or if they did he couldn’t find it). In the case of only one university did the hunt for exam information turn out to be easy and logical.

Finally, the design of most websites goes against the most obvious principle: keep it simple. Don’t cover the page with writing and images, and don’t make the following of links too complex. On the homepage, keep individual items apart from each other with plenty of white space, and only include information that will clearly be helpful to those accessing the page. Of the 14 websites I looked at, five even put so much on the page that it forces the user to scroll down to find key information, an absolute no-no in the design of internet home pages.

It seems to me that all this is another sign that many universities don’t have a proper understanding of the key objectives of PR, and in particular that they don’t really appreciate the potential and pitfalls of websites. Mostly they have not properly considered what they want these sites to do for them, and therefore they don’t knowhow they should design them to achieve their purposes. Universities deal with very complex areas of knowledge, but when it comes to the internet they should, above all, keep it simple.

Telling the university story

January 6, 2011

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 coupleĀ 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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