Leader: Just keep cool and carry on

Universities' lack of new-media savvy can leave reputations exposed, but popularity was never wholly within their control

May 27, 2010

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the fruit-bat paper saga (and there are plenty), one thing's for sure: University College Cork secured itself a huge PR disaster when it found itself at the centre of a media storm last week as an internal HR matter quickly spun out of control.

A surreal combination of alleged sexual harassment, fruit-bat fellatio, the right to dignity at work and academic freedom sent newspapers, blogs and social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook into overdrive. In the midst of this frenzy, the constituent institution of the National University of Ireland appeared paralysed.

As shown by "Climategate", the leaked email scandal at the University of East Anglia, when a story goes viral, it becomes a PR nightmare. And as soon as the "-gate" suffix is applied to anything, you know you're in for a rough ride. In the case of UCC, "Fruitbatgate" got its own hashtag on Twitter almost immediately, which should have rung alarm bells with the university authorities. What both cases highlight is that universities have some serious catching up to do in the area of reputation management.

Looking on the bright side, some good has come out of the UCC debacle, however: a journal article on fruit bats published almost unnoticed some seven months ago has gained unexpected media attention; everyone has learned something new - it's not only humans who indulge in oral sex; and UCC has raised its public profile, even if for the wrong reasons.

As Stephen Cheliotis, chief executive of the Centre for Brand Analysis, points out (perhaps redundantly in the UCC's case) in our cover story on fashionable universities: "Unfortunately there are heavy influences on your brand strength that aren't necessarily in the hands of the brand." Things have moved on since university choice was influenced only by teachers, family and friends; now there is a whole array of factors.

Studying fashion and design is cool because the subjects are perennially in vogue and have celebrity alumni; engineering, however, is not so lucky. Here, specialist institutions such as Goldsmiths, University of London and Central St Martins win out, as determined by the CoolBrands Council (yes, really), which drew up a list of the coolest. On another measure of popularity, applications per place, a specialist institution again leads the list: the London School of Economics' globally recognisable brand translates into 15.8 applicants per place and the UK university with the largest international student population by far.

Of course, it is not just subject that makes a university an "in" place: location is a key factor in cool. The big metropolitan universities reflect this in the number of applications they receive, with Manchester, Leeds and Edinburgh topping the list, and in the US nine out of 10 of the most applied to are city-based.

The city of Cork may not be Manchester and it's not Norwich either, but the long-term experience of that city's university offers UCC some hope. Despite all the supposed bad publicity stirred up by Climategate, a recent table of positive "buzz" in the blogosphere ranked UEA second, up from 53rd place in 2008, and applications this year are up by 35 per cent. In a topsy-turvy fame-fuelled world, it seems that all publicity really is good publicity.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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