Journalists receive hundreds of press releases from universities a day, the vast majority of which champion student achievements, new buildings and investments, glowing statistical results or vice-chancellors’ pronouncements about what’s best about their institution. Most of what journalists receive they don’t want.
By comparison, type the word “university” into Google News on any given day and there’s a good chance that you’ll get an opening page dominated by lecturers accused of wrongdoing, student misadventure, pay disputes and spiralling applications.
So why the huge disconnect between communication hopes and reality? In the face of only no news or bad news, universities often disengage from media, convinced that the press is “interested only in negative stories”. Alternatively, they blame the public relations team for lacking the skill to place details of their achievements. One of the worst feelings you can experience as a PR manager is when you get the high of coverage in Times Higher Education, the BBC and The Guardian one day followed by the sudden low of hammering on closed doors.
Universities want to be seen, loved and respected, while journalists seek to investigate, question and expose. As the facilitator that finds the middle ground between these uneven agendas, PR is often criticised for failing to live up to the expectations of both.
I recently caught up with a communications agency colleague who wasted no time in sharing the latest gossip about in-house PR heads from higher education institutions across the UK – “did you hear about so and so? They’ve gone on stress leave. Oh, and XXX has had a breakdown…” The list went on and on.
This spurred me to do a straw poll of PR colleagues about their key challenges, and the responses were universally consistent:
- “There are too many well-meaning but inexperienced people who assume that creating a news release will generate attention without any targeting, direction or hooks”
- “Clients believe that one slot on TV, or one appearance in a publication, will ‘solve all their marketing issues’”
- “Clients want an article focusing entirely on them and their wonderfulness. There is an unwillingness to get into anything remotely controversial – they say let’s not go there.”
This suggests that many universities need to refocus their PR practice and expectations. Some PR staff seem set up to fail, or at least find themselves caught between impossible demands from employers and journalists.
One of my toughest assignments was advising a university leader who wanted to appear in a local “dancing with the stars” event while at the same time announcing hundreds of job cuts. Such a lack of self-awareness and empathy cannot be fixed.
Of course, the media aren’t always entirely helpful. Frivolous Freedom of Information requests, a fascination with death, failure, upset and the occasional acceptance of stories only to drop them at the last minute can fray the hardiest PR’s sunny disposition.
I’m still amazed by the national publication that was thrilled with the offer of a vice-chancellor’s blog comparing major Brexit players to characters from Game of Thrones, only to chicken out of running it when the editorial board started to worry about upsetting politicians.
Much of this disconnect can be minimised if universities pause and adopt a more targeted approach. If you employ PR specialists, listen to them and consider that it’s not always possible to appear in every national paper, every week.
On the plus side, many PR professionals enjoy frequent and positive media outcomes for their institutions, but it is important to play the long game. Building relationships and acting professionally, creatively and consistently is a vital part of the process.
On message: Mark Ferguson’s top tips on how to get the best out of your PR objectives and activities
Tell the truth
PR is “the process of telling the truth persuasively”. You don’t always have to tell both sides of a story, but do ensure that your comments are accurate. No one appreciates exaggeration or “harmless” fibs
Know your audience
Who do you want to talk to and why? Appearing in obscure academic journals when your objective is to attract students is pointless. Consider where your audiences get their information
Be “new, impactful, dramatic, quirky and topical”. And provide visual opportunities as well as unique insights from interesting interviewees. Think about how to answer two key questions every audience will have: “so what?” and “what’s in it for me?”
Keep it brief
We are developing tweet-length attention spans. Briefly explain the who, what, why, where and when of a story in pitching to busy media professionals
Support your ‘heroes’
Develop star academics and give them the time and space needed to take part in media activities. If you have experts who are informative and entertaining, they will help to bring your institution’s views to life
Use the right media channels and outlets
Local or national newspapers, specialist magazines, the internet, videos or social media. Look at successful stories in the area you’re considering and learn from the best examples.
Cut back on PR
PR is measured on target audience impact and achievement versus organisational objectives. If you don’t communicate, how will audiences know to favour your university over others?
Avoid responding to a crisis
Think about how well United Airlines’ snap response to recent events served it.
Offer untrained spokespeople
Never put forward an unprepared or junior representative to take the flak or manage social media. Foot in mouth disease is commonplace in the face of unexpected questions.
Just deliver press releases
Press releases do still work, but everything needs to be optimised for mobile these days, particularly for students. Don’t get stuck with tired methods of delivery, try everything from interviews to Instagram to get your message across.
Mark Ferguson is director of specialist education communications consultancy, More Fire PR