Policymaking: crisis communications

Much has changed since Tony Blair declared his priorities to be ‘education, education, education’. Could better communications help restore relations?

June 8, 2023
A woman knocks on the door of number 10 to illustrate Crisis communications
Source: Getty

In a recent interview on the Leading podcast, fronted by the king of political spin Alastair Campbell, former chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne remarked on how far serious discussion about education had fallen off the political agenda.

“When I was a young opposition MP, and Tony Blair was prime minister, the most interesting domestic policy issue was education,” Osborne reflected. “It was a priority. But I have not heard a single mainstream politician say anything interesting about education for four or five years. I hear nothing from this government; I hear nothing from the Labour opposition.”

He was talking primarily about schools, but the sense that these “great animating issues” of previous generations have been relegated chimes with how universities have been treated in recent years: as kindling for the pyres of the culture wars rather than as crown jewels deserving of political care and attention.

Are universities blameless in that? Perhaps not – issues around freedom of speech, for example, are too often dismissed or avoided, when they should be addressed with courage, clarity and conviction by university leaders. The recent death of Robert Zimmer, who as president of the University of Chicago was the embodiment of such an approach, offered an uncomfortable reminder that not enough of his peers seem to be cut from the same cloth.

But such frailties hardly merit political blacklisting and, at a time of supercharged technological change and grave concerns about economic productivity, the sidelining is also fatal to future prosperity. Education systems being left to moulder serves no one, whatever their political allegiance.

One way in which universities can try to address this is in the way they communicate – both with the public and, more specifically, with politicians.

The latter point is addressed in an opinion piece this week by Natascha Engel, CEO of the thinktank Palace Yard and a former MP and deputy speaker in Parliament, who advises that – with a general election likely in a year’s time – now is the perfect moment for academics to get their ideas noticed.

While the future role of higher education is likely to be one issue on which all parties will have a view at the next election, it is just one, so this extends beyond the specific interests of universities and is relevant to anyone whose research could inform policymaking in priority areas.

Her advice is simple: “The greatest opportunity for academics is to provide the evidence base to illustrate why a policy would work, and that it would be popular and cost-effective,” she explains. Doing so effectively might also have the knock-on effect of reminding ministers of what an exceptional resource universities represent, and in turn push their own interests back up the agenda.

Effective communication is also vital for reaching the wider public, whether that relates to research findings, to addressing broader concerns about the value of higher education, or – just occasionally – to responding to crises that threaten the reputations of individuals or institutions.

In our feature this week, we talk to Sam McAlister, who as a Newsnight producer landed the infamous interview with Prince Andrew in which he discussed allegations of sexual impropriety and his friendship with the serial sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein. (As an aside, it is notable that the ever-expanding list of individuals known to have benefited from Epstein’s financial patronage includes high-profile academics and university leaders, a reminder of how attractive academia can be to reputation-launderers seeking social status via association.)

McAlister shares her years of experience on the front line of national news-gathering to give some valuable insights into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to media relations.

She also discusses the inside story of that Prince Andrew interview and reflects on how difficult such a situation is to manage from the perspective of communications professionals involved – particularly when they relate to an individual who is used to being told they are good at everything.

Crisis communications are not, generally, the bread and butter of a university press officer’s work – and, when scandals do occur, they tend to take on a life of their own in any case. Poor communications can certainly make things worse: it is not always possible for those on the front line to deliver the reputation-salvaging forcefield that a university’s leadership might hope for.

But if universities are slipping down the political agenda, and if the public do not see higher education as a priority worthy of consideration at the ballot box, then that counts as a crisis.

Fixing it is not about spin; it is about really listening to the concerns that are raised about the issues that do cut through to the public consciousness, and responding in good faith and with consistency and clarity, of action as well as of communication.


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