University PR neglects business

November 24, 1995

First thing last Monday morning and Bradford University was confirming to local journalists that it would not be withdrawing its honorary degree - announced just hours before the executions of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists - from Chief Eleazar Anyaoku, Nigerian secretary general of the Commonwealth.

Sue Coffey, head of the university's public relations department, had spent the weekend pouring over reports of the hangings and the resulting international outcry and it was decided by Monday that Chief Anyaoku was sufficiently distant from events. A matter of judgement and a not untypical start to the day for Ms Coffey.

Over-stretched and under-resourced is the picture emerging of higher education external relations departments in a survey published this week which highlights the increasing responsibilities of university PR staff.

The survey, conducted by education PR firm Communications Management, found university PR budgets varied wildly with the average of just over Pounds 300,000 concealing some departments working with less than Pounds 50,000. The services on offer were inevitably patchy.

Almost half the external relations departments surveyed carried out 15 or more functions - a finding confirmed by Ms Coffey's office which manages more than 30 different functions, everything from crisis PR to advertising, alumni relations to sponsorship and drafting the vice chancellor's letters and speeches.

Juggling and prioritising such varied roles can be problematic. On a typical day last week Ms Coffey was organising national newspaper coverage of research into prostitution on the Internet; liaising with five people in Florida over a press release concerning a Pounds 3 million commercial contract; hammering out a new university advertising policy; helping an academic get in touch with journalists; trying to persuade honorary graduate David Puttnam to get involved in a local charity project; calling journalists about a forthcoming conference; investigating legal flyposting in the city; entertaining a Radio 4 producer; and simultaneously dealing with staff and student enquiries about Christmas cards, photographs and the like. At 7.15pm she went home with 53 job applications to vet.

The survey found that more resources, both human and financial, were the most commonly mentioned factor likely to improve effectiveness. While most of the respondents were happy with their university's reputation more than a third judged the reputation and awareness of their institution's research to be not very good or poor. Seventy per cent of respondents used external agencies for some aspect of marketing due to a lack of available skills in house.

Respondents also revealed that their most important PR target audience was potential full-time students from the local area. The Higher Education Funding Council was also mentioned as a key audience but the business community both locally and nationally was viewed as least important.

The report cautions against such short-termism: "External relations departments are tasked with targeting a wide range of audiences and, because of resource shortages, appear to place priority on audiences which are traditional sources of income rather than on those such as businesses which may be income generators of the future."

The External Affairs Function in Higher Education is available from Pam Calvert on 017 850761.

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