Barely a week goes by without universities attracting negative headlines. Be it vice-chancellors’ pay and expenses, student protests or graduate employment outcomes, higher education is often attracting the type of scrutiny usually associated with “big business”. This has happened for four reasons.
First, many universities are big businesses. From employing thousands of people, to selling services to thousands more and managing turnovers of millions, they are often far more complex endeavours than many companies. However, universities still receive significant public funding and so are widely regarded as part of the public sector, thus being open to scrutiny – much like the BBC. It should therefore be expected that the public and media will want to ask searching questions of HE leaders.
Second, the rapid growth in the size of HE – often coupled with universities becoming more responsible for raising their own income – has forced many to become more commercially minded, without necessarily having much commercial experience. It is little wonder that many institutions have increased senior salaries in a global “war for talent” that they haven’t traditionally engaged in nor understood.
Third, citizens are more self-confident about their rights and place a greater emphasis on not only excellent customer service but also higher ethical standards. Students and their families consider universities to be providers of a service they are having to pay for – and one that they are constantly told they require to stay ahead in the jobs market. Deference is well and truly dead.
Fourth, the 24/7 news cycle and the explosion of social media have transformed the way in which an issue – be it a speaker on campus or a donation to a faculty – can develop into a full-blown crisis, as well as introducing new channels through which universities need to manage communications around these issues. What was once the preserve of the student newspaper can now be trending across the world in minutes.
All of this means that universities are facing what we at Hanover call a classic “reputation gap”: the discrepancy between what organisations say they’re doing and what they’re doing in practice to manage reputational risk.
For example, you cannot talk about creating a great student experience if you’re slow to respond to student concerns. You cannot proclaim yourself a hotbed of innovation and openness if your processes are byzantine. It will be exposed.
Universities do not own their reputations. While they should have proactive positive marketing and communications about all the things that are going right, they need to act pre-emptively, confidently and effectively in the face of issues and problems. There are three ways of doing this.
First, universities need to be more open. Even though they are already some of the most transparent organisations – being subject to FOI requests and a whole raft of wider data reporting requirements – it is essential to demonstrate to students, families and (that dreaded word) stakeholders that you take seriously the issues that matter to them.
For example, if a university is reorganising departments, it needs to work proactively to explain why it is doing that and to emphasise the positive aspects of the changes rather than simply responding to the inevitable criticism.
Second, universities need to build networks of advocates who will stand by them when things get tough. That means not only alumni but also outside experts in the fields in which universities may get drawn into, who can inject balance into any debate.
Third and most importantly, the leadership (including the vice-chancellor) should plan for the types of negative issues that could arise, decide what their responses would be and test that their processes for responding work. Scenario planning can act as an early warning system, directing organisations to areas that they did not know needed fixing.
These three pillars embed communications in an institution’s strategic decision-making process. The alternative is that universities will continue to be on the back foot and that some may find that reputational gap becomes so large that they disappear down it.
Gavin Megaw is managing director of corporate and brand at Hanover Communications.