Media tarts at heart of success

December 19, 2003

Jealousy of colleagues they describe as "media tarts" may encourage academics to seek publicity for their stories and so raise their university's public profile, a press officers' conference has heard.

Peter Dunn, head of Warwick University's press office, told delegates at the Higher Education External Relations Association conference at Warwick last week that he knew of a Warwick academic who regularly brought newsworthy stories to the press office.

Mr Dunn said that some of this academic's colleagues "despised him for being a media tart". But Mr Dunn said that after a year or so, two of his colleagues came knocking on the press office doors with newsworthy suggestions of their own.

Mr Dunn said: "When academics moan about other academics appearing in the media they are really saying 'why is it him and not me?'"

On a more serious note, the conference heard that universities must regularly test their plans for dealing with a crisis, such as a major fire or a health scare.

The warning came from Peter Reader, external relations director at Southampton University, who was faced with one of Britain's worst-ever university health crises in 1997 when three students died of meningitis and thousands of staff and students had to be vaccinated.

Southampton is planning to conduct a test in the near future involving members of senior management to evaluate its preparedness for another crisis.

Mr Reader said ensuring that crisis plans function well was vital, and knowing who was in charge was crucial if a plan was to work. He said he had authority to take whatever action he deemed necessary to cope with a crisis. He also stressed that journalists must be given as much information as possible and that this had to be updated frequently.

A fire at City University in 2001 highlighted the need to get accurate information to the media and to staff and students. Newspaper reports gave the impression that the university had been totally destroyed, which was not the case. A witty advertising campaign was launched very quickly that helped get across the message that it was business as usual for the university.

In a final warning to university press officers, Mr Dunn said that they should never lie to journalists. "I did it once and managed to get away with it, but I vowed never to do it again. Even if senior management ask you to tell fibs, there is always a better way of dealing with a difficult situation," he said.

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