Tara Brabazon: Academics must wise up to Web 2.0 marketing – and the answer is high-quality podcasts

iPod broadcasts provide the best way for universities to present and strengthen their brand to would-be students and the public; the message must be to use the beat of popular culture to convey a serious message

August 26, 2009

A few times each year, most of us fill a car boot with banners and posters or lug a box of pamphlets on to a train. We are heading to an educational expo or careers evening. There we stand in a local hall on a cold night talking to prospective students, prospective parents, prospective grandparents and friends who have come to share warmth, coffee and biscuits. For nearly two decades, this type of marketing has been justified as part of our job. Nevertheless, such events are not easily blended into the coffee cup of an organic intellectual. Gramsci would not approve. He was an organiser, not an advertiser. At a stretch, we can justify these actions as a way to combine a commitment to education with the aspirations of marketing departments. Occasionally when answering parental questions, the tightrope-talking teeters between teacher and promoter, educational advocate and irritating infotainer.

Some institutions are finding new ways to combine scholarship and marketing. It is easy to forget that the internet is a (very) mature medium. Google is ten years old. Amazon is among the world’s most recognised brands. YouTube is a portal for media memories. Daily events are punctuated by Facebook updates. To manage this fragmented audience for our educational “products”, efficient and imaginative academic communication is required. Standing in a school hall is not the only option.

Such a scheme requires a generous and productive dialogue between academics and university public relations and marketing departments. Too often, when applications dip, these departments shoulder the blame. They are easy targets. But we all know academics who make excuses each year to avoid open days and careers evenings. There are rational reasons for their reluctance: staff development reviews and promotion criteria give little credence to the almost invisible marketing duties carried out by academics on weekends, at night and outside teaching hours. With the focus on research productivity, quality assurance and academic health, there are few attempts to log the effort and commitment required to attract students into our classrooms in the first place.

Imagine if – instead of rebuilding and renaming the research assessment exercise – we created the MAE, or media assessment exercise. Instead of peer reviews or bibliometrics, what if university academics were assessed for their engagement with the media? How would we score for the dissemination of best practice in teaching and the promotion of innovative applications and audiences for research?

Proposing such an initiative doesn’t spring from some Woodstock anniversary-fuelled nostalgia for a particular version of community and outreach. Instead, this scenario is intended to create an opportunity to consider how we deploy the media in our academic lives. To enable such a thinking space, we require an honest recognition of the three very different modes of engagement between universities and the media: public service, public relations and crisis management. The difficulty is that these functions are often converged and confused. One reason why university media policy fails, or is perceived to have failed, is because these different imperatives are compressed into one strategy.

Public service, public relations and crisis management conflict most of the time. University employees use all sorts of words to pretend that serving the market is the same as serving the public. That is why phrases like “outreach programmes”, “widening participation” and “community engagement” pepper our corporate plans. We could state more simply that universities are public institutions and must occupy a role in understanding, reflecting and auditing the decisions made by the powerful. This is the public service role that academics most readily understand and deploy. Academics are not selling anything. They are disseminating research to a new audience.

This university role in housing public intellectuals is distinct from the public relations function, with its goal of managing change through media instruments. In this case, the aim is to shape information for presentation to a target audience. At their best, public relations fulfil a key management role: to streamline communication between organisations and execute a plan for change. And in moments of crisis, their task becomes more urgent and unsettling – often through a shift in focus to the (seemingly obvious) relationship between a fact and its interpretation.

Crisis management is a crucial part of corporate communication. It is also the furthest point from an academic’s comfort zone of media engagement. The necessity for crisis management increases in a Web 2.0 environment, where thousands of students, employees and former employees blog their views, often anonymously. While university marketing departments can write Wikipedia entries, even with the best monitoring and Google alerts they cannot control Facebook wall posts, Tweets and comment culture.

There is a way to align public service, public relations and crisis management into a university marketing strategy that both incorporates academics and moderates the agitated acceleration of a Web 2.0 environment. The key decision in instigating this productive convergence is to choose a media platform that is appropriate to both academics and institutions’ marketing and public relations staff.

I remain intrigued as to why so many universities in the UK underestimate the potential of podcasts and iTunes. Podcasting is a great opportunity in a Web 2.0 environment to shape a brand and spur debate. The University of Warwick and The Open University have produced extraordinary programming, including interviews with staff upon the release of new books and commentary on key topics in the news.

Coventry University’s initiative, “Coventry Conversations”, also impresses me. These “talks with media movers and shakers”, which are then made available as podcasts, build on strategies developed in the US, where public lectures are recorded and heard by much larger audiences. Coventry has branded all its sessions to draw traffic back to the university’s website, and all sessions unify around the theme of thinking about the relationship between “old” and “new” media. Lectures from guest speakers including Paul Gambaccini and Armando Iannucci, and dialogues with figures ranging from Jon Snow to Horace Panter of Coventry band The Specials, are among the highlights of the “Conversations”.

This fine project captures and promotes the university’s public intellectual culture. Two further initiatives could enhance its already strong series. First, it is important to lift and standardise sound quality. Because the podcasts are recorded from live lectures, the resultant sound is variable. This is not a problem isolated to Coventry. Stanford University’s recorded public lectures also confront similar difficulties.

A quick way to improve Coventry’s presentations and sound quality would be for academics to record their introductions for guest speakers in studio conditions, enabling their voice and contribution to frame a live event. This would not only present Coventry academics in a strong public intellectual role but also provide contextual information for listeners outside the university sector. Live introductions at lectures are variable in quality, difficult to capture sonically at short notice and are rarely as expansive as required when constructing a podcast archive.

A fine example of a carefully crafted lecture programme for later playback via podcasts is the University of Minnesota’s “Great Conversations” series. The topics chosen for discussion include the obesity “epidemic”, immigration and the digital divide. Mary Nichols, dean of continuing education at Minnesota, introduces these sessions and constructs a careful alignment between promoting a university brand and engaging a new audience with important ideas. As she describes in her introduction to the sixth season of these podcast lectures, the goal is “providing Minnesota citizens with direct access to the groundbreaking research conducted here at the university”. She has underestimated her influence. Listeners far beyond Minnesota are hearing about the university and its academics, and the series is one of the best current initiatives reconstituting public lectures for a podcasting audience.

As well as improving sound quality, universities such as Coventry may wish to consider moving beyond recorded lectures. Lectures written for a live audience lose their multi-sensory engagements when sound is sliced from vision to create a podcast. Listening to podcasted lectures is like hearing a neighbour’s great party through a wall. We get a sense of the excitement but don’t really feel that we are participating.

It is important and motivating to discover new ways of presenting innovative ideas. MIT’s Open Courseware is a leader in this field, offering short sessions by academics created specifically for a podcasting audience. Another valuable initiative that is as yet underutilised is podcasted dialogues between staff and students, which helps the latter to develop media competencies while confirming communication skills to employers. At its best, podcasting enables a responsive audience to hear intelligent and considered audio content that enlivens dead time on public transport or creates a smart soundtrack to our daily lives.

Because of the spin and silliness in discussions of Web 1.0 and Web 2.0, such a role is underplayed. These phrases inhibit our understanding of how different components of the collaborative media “revolution” are changing at different speeds. While most blogs are dead blogs, killed by inactivity or boredom, podcasts are so variable in genre, duration and quality that they warrant specialist study. Too much enthusiasm was expelled through the “improvement” of podcasts through vodcasts.

In fact, there is more to achieve through podcasting. The problem is that the universities that made an early leap to 2.0 marketing still record lectures as audio content. Just as the compact disc replicated vinyl structures for presenting popular music, podcasts are currently repeating the older lecture mode to convey ideas on a new platform. At their best, podcasts are different from lectures and create new audiences and relationships with citizens who would never venture on to a university campus. We need podcasting 2.0, using the expertise of public relations departments and university academics to create fresh genres and presentational modes.

Podcasts are improving and key qualities are emerging from the best university programmes. The most effective sessions are short, well written, well prepared and technically sound. They are branded through an introduction and jingle, aligning the marketing message of a university with the dissemination of academic research. Podcasts merge the professionalism of radio with the freedom of blogging, enabling pre-packaged content to advertise a university while expressing the core arguments of scholarship.

A special song provides musical inspiration for such a strategy. Eddy Grant’s 1988 hit Gimme Hope Jo’anna presents an intensely politicised lyric that is sweetened through rhythm. A brilliant chorus, supposedly about an aloof and powerful woman, accompanies a moving and staunch statement about the devastations of apartheid. Jo’anna, in another guise, is Johannesburg.

We can learn much from Eddy Grant: how to use rhythm – the beat of popular culture – to convey a serious message. He gives us a danceable politics, enfolding a message that moves through the rest of our lives. The challenge for academics is to help public relations and marketing departments welcome these opportunities and sharpen the content of Tweets, posts and blogs. The podcasting platform enables us to contribute to the public that we serve, continuing the interventions of E. P. Thompson, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. New voices from institutions such as Coventry University continue this old project. There is hope for Jo’anna, and the rest of us.

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