The vast army of public relations experts now employed in promoting universities have to adopt a different approach to the media these days.
When I first started on the Daily Mirror in 1989, the Independent, Guardian, Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail each had two education correspondents. The Sunday newspapers had dedicated education correspondents, too. The Daily Express, the Mirror and Today (the now-defunct Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper) had one and the Sun had a reporter who dedicated a large percentage of his time to covering the subject. In addition, the Independent and the Guardian had substantial education supplements. The Independent does not have a dedicated education writer now it is just an online product; the Mail and the Telegraph only have one dedicated to the paper (although the Telegraph does now have one working online too). Go to an education conference and you will no longer find a representative from either the Sun or the Express covering it. At the Mirror, their education reporter combines coverage of the subject with reporting on transport and labour relations too.
Those meaty education supplements have disappeared – with the Guardian now having dedicated pages devoted to the subject within the main paper and the Independent disappearing as a newspaper altogether. A bright spot on the horizon, though, is that the i – that offshoot of the Independent sold to a separate newspaper group – has appointed someone to cover education.
Public relations staff can no longer get by with just schmoozing the education correspondent. They have to tap up, say, the business and science correspondents, too. Business is a key area for universities to get their message across about the importance of the higher education sector to the UK economy. It nets around £27 billion a year. Science research, of course, can also provide opportunities for some of the human interest stories I dealt with earlier. Researchers also have to grapple with dealing with the news reporting staff – some of whom may have little knowledge of, and little interest in, education.
In spite of the contraction in the number of national newspaper education correspondents, there is more space devoted to the coverage of higher education. Partly, that stems from the fact that the percentage of young people going to university has substantially increased and so more parents and students want to read about it. It stems partly, too, from the fees students now have to pay and the debts they accrue. Students want to see that they are getting bang for their bucks from the courses they take.
In some ways, this means UK universities will face a more critical press in the years ahead. Complaints about courses with the Office of the Independent Adjudicator are rising; student satisfaction ratings – while still high – are falling.
Individual universities may have to defend themselves from criticism on these scores and should be prepared with a plan to combat any rise in complaints or lowering in satisfaction ratings. The road ahead for media relations will not be easy for universities but the increased interest in higher education will mean that that army of 600 or so university public relations officers will have to be on their toes.
A word, then, about how media relations officers should approach the press, TV and radio. The scattergun approach is not a good idea. On too many occasions in the past I have been approached by press officers who have come up with a list of stories and features that I might be interested in, and put forward five ideas, say. Much better to have researched the kind of material the newspaper they are speaking to has been running and select one or maybe two suggestions tailor-made to fit that audience. With the contraction of the press, there is more pressure on journalists to produce and they do not have the time to run through a whole gamut of ideas.
Finally, I would counsel my colleagues in the press to listen to what people have to say. Some years ago, I was on a panel with fellow education journalists tackling this precise question about how to improve relations between the higher education sector and the media. One panellist offered the following advice: “Don’t call me – I’m far too busy to talk to anyone.” She also counselled against an invitation to go out to lunch. Wrong approach – and not just because of the turning-down of a free lunch! I have always worked on the theory that you never ignore a telephone call or face-to-face approach – it may just have the front page lead that you are looking for (which may not be the original idea the caller was trying to promote). It emerges through conversation.
That, I think, is the essence of media relations with the higher education sector (and others): dialogue, not just the promotion of press releases.
The world of higher education, therefore, is likely to be faced by more space in the media being devoted to its issues – and less understanding and knowledge of the sector by those who are filling it. It is a challenging time for those paid to promote the image of their university. But, given the quality of British higher education, a far from impossible task.
Richard Garner was the education correspondent of The Independent for 12 years until 2016. He now writes a column for Tes. This is an extract from his Higher Education Policy Institute pamphlet, Return on investment? How universities communicate with the outside world, published on 30 March.