Trust us, we're not academics

August 4, 2006

Not that long ago, university press offices were manned by a couple of dons - now they are meaner machines, finds Harriet Swain

In 1990, after more than 781 years, Cambridge University got its first press officer. Until then, if the media wanted to know something, they would ring the vice-chancellor's office; if academics felt their research merited publicity they would get help from someone known to be good at these things - or they would do it themselves. Now, the university has six press officers. Plus support staff. Plus a director of external affairs and communications, a newly created role. He is Stephen Jolly, fresh from public relations at Regus, the UK's leading provider of serviced offices. "The role has become fundamental to the university," says Tim Holt, deputy head of communications.

Cambridge's story is echoed elsewhere - not least at Oxford, which also created the post of director of communications and public affairs in the past year. The post is occupied by Jeremy Harris, a former BBC presenter and foreign affairs specialist, whose most recent role was principal strategist to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

While many post-1992 universities, which have generally had to fight harder to establish their image, started becoming media savvy as soon as they gained university status, a lot of old institutions established their press offices less than ten years ago. Those early press officers were usually academics who had developed an interest in communicating with the media. Sometimes they were junior administrative staff. It is only in the past five years or so that it has become routine for institutions to employ a professional in-house team trained in public relations, and to expand the role of this team beyond mere communications to external or public affairs. The cost of this is hard to pin down, but for most institutions it has been substantial. "There is much more investment in PR," Holt says.

But then institutions are expecting a lot more from press offices. They have to be comfortable with a wider range of media than in the past. They need to be au fait with podcasts and blogs, 24-hour and online news and increasing numbers of television channels. As well as providing a service to journalists and researchers, university press officers need to be strategic thinkers, able to control the image of their institution. They need to organise campaigns, to promote certain stories at times when they are likely to have the most impact and to provide crisis management. They have to provide media training for academics and others, and often handle increasingly elaborate forms of internal communications. They are involved in widening participation, community relations, lobbying and external events. They also need to keep track of developments in national and local politics, and Cambridge's external affairs director has introduced political monitoring.

Nic Mitchell, press and public relations manager at Teesside University, who is on the executive committee of the Higher Education External Relations Association, says the biggest change in his role is that students are no longer necessarily the main target audience. When he first started as a press officer, the job involved getting success stories into the local papers. Now, it has become much more politically involved. He needs to make sure the university appeals to potential funders, such as the Regional Development Agency and the European Union, and to the Government, the community and local businesses. "We are helping to regenerate the region,"

he says.

There are many reasons for this change. One is that communications have become more important in every sector. Press offices in many businesses and public sector organisations were as haphazard as those in universities a decade ago. Another reason is that universities are much bigger than they used to be. Michael Shattock, joint director of the MBA in higher education management at the Institute of Education, says: "If nearly 50 per cent of the age group go into higher education and if universities are supposed to be at the sharp end of research and economic development, they are quite big news. The whole debate over fees has emphasised the fact that universities have a different position in society than they had 20 years ago." He says that Chancellor Gordon Brown's emphasis on the knowledge econ-omy has increased the importance of research, and the kind of research he is interested in is carried out primarily in universities rather than in government research centres. At the same time, with the decline in traditional industries, universities have become more closely tied up with regional economies.

Sam Hinton-Smith, public policy and media relations adviser at the think-tank Demos, says there is pressure on universities to justify their activities to stakeholders, be they students, staff, animal rights protesters or alumni. Graduates have become a valuable source of potential income for a university, and in return it must offer them prestige. "Being associated with a strong academic brand is very important," he says.

Susie Baker, who set up Cambridge's press office and is now director of communications at Oxford Brookes University, says Cambridge felt the need for a central university voice only when it began its fundraising and development campaign. Before that, it was felt that the quality of its research spoke for itself. "Organisations value their reputations more than they used to and realise it's something they need to protect and actively look after," she says. "There is also a recognition that your reputation is based on what people say about you and they don't just draw their information from the media any more."

Universities are also operating in a more competitive environment. First, they are competing for funding. According to Martin Herrema, media relations manager at Westminster University, the research assessment exercise has focused academics' minds on the importance of publicity. Second, they are competing for students.

The impact of commercial pressures concerns some of those who remember the pre-press office days. In the battle for competitive advantage, might academic freedom be lost? Dennis Hayes, joint president of the University and College Union, says there are pressures on people not to publish things regarded as sensitive. "There is now a machine there to help you and in helping you that machine censors you," he says. He adds that academics lack confidence to speak out. "Academic freedom has responsibilities," he says. "You say what you think and have researched, and you take the consequences."

One new university academic, who didn't want to be named, claims some faculties vet conference papers in case anything is said that might harm the institution's reputation. "Whereas traditional places have confidence because people want to go to them, in the new sector they are struggling to recruit. They don't want to say anything that's going to put people off."

Herrema acknowledges that there is often a difference between old and new universities, with many post-1992 institutions tending to focus resources on marketing, while older universities put them into press offices. While he says that academics at his institution are free to talk to the media whenever they want, he makes a distinction between issues connected to their areas of expertise and inquiries that "may be seen to be political or aren't directly connected to the area they are actually working on". In that case, they are advised to contact the press office.

Baker says that Oxford Brookes's policy will soon change. Academics will be able to speak freely about their area of expertise, but will need to contact the press office if approached on university policy. If their research is politically sensitive that isn't an issue, but they can "phone up and we will talk about it and take it forward", she adds.

Holt says that while academic freedom remains fundamental in his university "in the past, the university was ruled by academics. Now it is much more the case that professionals have come in. There are some tensions there, but it is a feature of the modern world".

Shattock agrees that it would be impossible - and unwise - to try to turn back the clock, but he says there is a danger that universities will begin to believe their own rhetoric. He is also worried about press offices tempted by short-term gimmicky PR rather than establishing a more strategic and serious message. "If you descend to gimmicks and cheapening the image of the university, it's hard to distinguish the university from Coca-Cola," he warns.

He suggests that the public affairs role of universities has reached its peak. But others believe it has further to go as universities look for students overseas and new technologies lead to more media outlets. Baker says that while press officers cannot expect to control everything, they can act as the "eyes and ears" of the university, finding out what people think of it and identifying issues that need to be addressed.

Most institutions have already come to rely on these eyes and ears. The idea of Cambridge having no PR department now seems absurd.

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