In an era of increased competition, image is everything and the university that rests on its laurels is destined to lose out. Alison Utley reports.
Image is all in the modern university. Parents, employers, teachers and the media are all ready to reinforce the preconceptions that Edinburgh University is full of "Yahs", Exeter is for the Barbour brigade and that no one should go to Brunel if they are afraid of getting their hands oily. As for the newer universities, is it really worth the bother?
With candidates spoilt for choice and the closing date for next year's applications a month away, resources are being poured into image-raising activities. The buzz phrase is strategic reputation management and, if the public relations gurus are to be believed, improving your university's reputation is the key to meeting recruitment targets.
Few places are struggling with a more problematic reputation than Bradford. Coverage of rioting over the summer has had a profound impact on recruitment at the university, according to head of PR Alison Darnborough. "We are seeing at first hand the negative impact of bad coverage of a city," she said. "There can be no doubt that the Bradford factor has hit us hard." Bradford received 500 fewer inquiries through clearing this year and its intake was 19 per cent below target.
Step number one has been to identify the source of the problem. University research showed that almost half of applicants who had declined offers from Bradford this year cited the poor image of the city, double the proportion of the year before. And a questionnaire to 500 schools and colleges revealed that 22 per cent would not even consider Bradford.
"So much of this is perception based on television reporting, and we know that if we can get applicants here to see for themselves what life is like they are much more likely to come back," Ms Darnborough said. "The poor perception does not match with the reality and we need to get that message across."
Bradford's PR strategy is to counter bad publicity with good, using the positive experiences of students and working with agencies in the city to improve its rating among young people.
Potential students may be the bread and butter, but universities also need to sell their reputations to a broader and more complex audience. "Other key stakeholders are equally important and institutions need to devise a communications strategy that targets parents, employers, business and research partners, politicians and other decision-makers," said Alex Ford of Sheffield Hallam University.
Ms Ford said institutions were increasingly looking to differentiate themselves and offer a more distinct "product" than their competitors to achieve a competitive advantage. "PR is a vital tool in managing, building and developing a distinct reputation, it is an expression of who we are, what we offer, how we can benefit customers, what is different about us and how we offer better value than our competitors."
How does the tool work?
"Strategic reputation management is a curious combination of a science and an art," Ms Ford said. All PR needs to be firmly evidence-based, but analysis and solutions need to be very creative. "There is no point in doing any of this unless you have robust supporting data," she said. "But then when you have done your research and you know who your customers are, communicating with them is very much a creative response."
It also helps not to leave anything to chance and to get everyone, from the vice-chancellor downwards, committed and involved. "Strategic PR is a planned way of using a wide range of communications devices including events and publications, sponsorship, partnerships and alliances. But the lead has got to come from the top."
If the bosses will not join in, PR can be an uphill struggle. Pam Calvert, managing director of PR company Communications Management, said fierce competition had forced senior management, including many vice-chancellors, to think much more carefully about their institutions' reputations - and about investing in them. But good PR is no use in a vacuum. "There is a temptation to think this is just about spin but reputation is not just about what you say, it's about what you do and how you behave and this is a lesson some senior management have yet to grasp," she said.
"If they don't behave in a way commensurate with their own message, and a gap opens up, then our work is undermined and it becomes just more propaganda. We are not a sticking plaster to cover up a wound."
Bringing in outside experts is a new and growing trend within the sector. Ms Calvert said her company had been pushing on doors within higher education that, until recently, had been firmly closed: "Over the last year or so there has been a distinct change," she said. "There used to be an anxiety about bringing in advisers from outside but that has now changed completely."
Communications Management is now working with about 10 per cent of the sector and all the signs are that more is to come.
Rosemary Stamp, director of Riley Consultancy, agreed that universities were now taking reputation management seriously. "They are starting to have a consumer focus and to be led by the market rather than by the product. This is a far cry from the old world when all universities needed to worry about was their research reputation. It's no longer enough to be good, you've got to be able to tell people you're good."
Ms Stamp says all universities need to ask themselves how they want their brand to develop over the next five years. This is the essence of strategic PR thinking and can be a painful process. But it can be lots of fun too. Good media coverage is highly prized everywhere and Leicester University's Ather Mirza is a former journalist turned PR who prides himself on spotting news angles in otherwise routine university events. Aside from getting Leicester's academic experts placed in newspapers and the broadcast media, Mr Mirza recently found a new way of getting his institution's name out there.
"When an agent for Bollywood approached us we had no idea of the impact that that would have," he said. A few months later Leicester's front lawn was immortalised in a major Bollywood movie shot during the summer vacation. "We had crowds of people on the campus every day to watch the filming and at least they now know Leicester University exists," Mr Mirza said. "But more importantly the film gave us a good deal of international multicultural exposure."
Peter Dunn, head of PR at Warwick University, has also been exposing his institution to major overseas publicity, all in the name of profile-raising. When Bill Clinton delivered a speech on globalisation on campus last year, in the presence of prime minister Tony Blair and some senior cabinet colleagues, it was make or break.
"We were on CNN for two-and-a-half hours and the story was used by 250 other US stations," said Mr Dunn, who slept on campus during the week and subsequently won a Higher Education External Relations Association (Heera) award for his efforts. "It was definitely worth it," he said. "If we weren't on the map before we definitely are now."
Sometimes local reputation can be more important. John McGovern, head of marketing and PR at Lancaster University, said the management there had decided not to go for mass advertising. "For us the secret is to be focused and establish a presence where it matters most, in local schools, for instance. Knowing your image and being able to eliminate the negative is the keyI no university can afford to rest on its laurels."
Alisdair Lockhart, chair of the Heera, agreed. He said the days when a university could afford simply to appoint a junior press officer, stick them in an office and leave them to answer the phone were gone - although some older institutions still hung on to the "information office" approach.
"Some universities are still kidding themselves that they are not in competition with each other. Fifty years ago it may have been fine to simply be the best, but the world has moved on."
Philippa LeMarquand of Heera's PR committee said the university PR industry had come of age. "What we like to think is that we are invisible but highly effective," said Ms LeMarquand, head of PR at Brunel University.
"Our efforts are geared towards steering the institution's reputation in the right direction. When you think what can happen with campuses full of thousands of students, we need to be on standby 24 hours a day waiting for our opportunities. Whether good or bad, we try to make the most of them."