Headlines count, even the unflattering ones

April 11, 2013

For universities, is any publicity good publicity? It may well be, according to the governing council of Newcastle University.

In its most recently published minutes from a meeting on 10 December, the council discussed new key performance indicators, including targets to assess the university’s media profile.

The council heard that Google alerts were to be used “as the means to assess whether the University has achieved a prominent positive national and regional media profile”.

The minutes explain that the university was to introduce a target of 1,200 media mentions a month, although it was noted that Google alerts “could not gauge whether…coverage was positive or negative”.

However, the minutes note that despite “some negative publicity” for the London School of Economics over its links with the now-deposed Gaddafiregime in Libya, the institution’s position in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings had nonetheless improved.

This example “suggests that any publicity can serve to improve an institution’s recognition (if not necessarily its reputation) internationally”, the minutes say, although it is not known how serious the comment was intended to be.

The LSE forged multiple links with the Gaddafiregime, agreeing to train Libyan civil servants, inviting Mu’ammer Gaddafito deliver a speech at the university via a video link and agreeing to take on his son Saif as a PhD student.

But when Colonel Gaddafilaunched a bloody crackdown on protesters in February 2011, media attention was drawn to the LSE’s links with the regime, resulting in the resignation of the school’s director, Sir Howard Davies, in March that year.

However, Newcastle appears not to have put into practice the mantra that “any publicity is good publicity” as the minutes later agree to establish how many of the media mentions are positive or negative.

Abi Kelly, director of public relations at Newcastle, explained that the target referred to positive media mentions, not any reference to the university.

“By using keyword searches we are able to distinguish between positive and negative news,” she said.

There are “countless media monitoring agencies” that offered to sift through media coverage and judge their tone, she said, “but this can be very costly”.


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