With thanks to the Guardian Higher Education network for allowing us to repost this. This live discussion originally took place in October 2011, with several committee members taking part…here’s their advice on innovative PR for Higher Education. Tell us what you think…
You can find the original post on the Guardian Higher Education site here.
Tracy Playle, education communications specialist, Pickle Jar Communications Ltd, a specialist education marketing and communications consultancy
Universities must be prepared to invest time and money in communications: In 2005 I was involved in a Warwick University project to raise the profile of university research on television channels all around the world. The beauty of this is that the academics got to communicate their research themselves, but edited in a way that broadcasters would like and use. Doing this required a number of things:
• Decent budgets: Video, produced to broadcasting standard, isn’t cheap
• Time: Communicating research well is time-consuming for the PR professional and, importantly, the academics
• Creativity: This is needed to recognise a good research project and make the connection to the “real world” that broadcasters would need in order to run it.
The lessons we learned were that the sector was very reserved about getting involved, and that they just weren’t prepared to invest time and money into PR and good-quality communications. The time and money issues remain, and until we crack those, we’re never going to be able to do really great communications work in the HE sector.
Know your audience and listen to all their feedback: Knowing your audience is an absolute given for anyone working in communications roles. The shift now is that we are able to listen a lot more intently to our audience and hear what they really think about us. One of the things I regularly find is that negative comments online about our organisations are often dismissed as a “social media problem”, whereas positive comments are received with a pat on the back and “aren’t we doing well as an organisation?” response. This shows a disconnect in how we listen to our audiences and the respect we give to the comments they make.
Best practice – news blogs are an effective alternative or addition to the traditional press release: If you would like to see how effective news blogs can be, then look at these two examples: Leicester Exchanges, from the University of Leicester and Nottingham University‘s blog on the UK 2010 elections.
Mithu Lucraft, PR manager, SAGE
Good relationships are the basis for good communications: The best stories are the ones where you know the journalist, have spent time communicating with them and understanding what they need, then send your story to them. This can be done through face-to-face means as well as through online channels. And I think it is worth remembering in this mix that it isn’t just journalists with online channels. The key influencers can be anyone, anywhere and it’s really important to think about building relationships with those people too. You can also keep up with what journalists are looking for on Twitter by following @helpareporter or@JournoRequest.
Don’t just watch conversations in the social media space, engage with them: The big opportunity HE communications officers have is the immediacy of engaging through social channels. It’s so important to not just be monitoring conversations but actually engaging in them. If you need to, change the structure of your PR team so that you’re able to be more nimble at monitoring and responding to conversations with your stakeholders.
Look at how scholarly societies are engaging with government departments and finding ways to integrate your messages. For example, the Academy of Social Science, who are campaigning for the importance of the social sciences.
Resource: Stop talking about yourself – a post on Brian Solis’s blog about the relationship between self-referential tweets and Twitter popularity.
Top tip: Recording equipment can be as simple as plugging in a laptop and recording using Audacity, a free cross-platform sound editor, or using a Flip camera. If you are recording a lecture, a little editing will be required.
Heather Baker, managing director, TopLine Communications, a B2B PR and social media consulting to the IT and Education sectors
The press release is not the problem, the communications strategy is: Calling the press release ineffective is a classic case of the poor workman blaming his tools. In the right pair of hands, it can be incredibly effective at getting all the facts of a story to journalists at the most appropriate time. If a HEI is sending out press releases that fail to make headlines, then they have their whole communications strategy wrong. What makes you think that they will be any better at grabbing attention through blogs, Twitter or any other new media?
Try pitching your news stories to journalists over the phone and then use the media release as a follow-up, to make sure they have all the facts, correct spellings etc in front of them, so that they can create their own, unbiased story.
Social media use increases pressure on the institution to offer good service: If your messages are no longer controlled by your press team and devolved to your students and other stakeholders, the institution is now under pressure to make sure that their service to those stakeholders is good. A UK press release published in English cannot just be translated and distributed in China. However, a Chinese student blogging on RenRen about her experience at, for example, the University of Bath, is gold dust – if, of course, her experiences are positive.
Top tip: Give students their own channel on YouTube to provide prospects with an idea of student life. The fact that this uncontrolled content is genuine will make it invaluable, and it is hard to deny how influential YouTube now is.
Lorna Gozzard, director, Kindred, a media and branding agency
Invest time in building the profile of your spokesperson: Getting a spokesperson established can be quite a long process. They need to have charisma, but in a pretty competitive market, they often also need to (at least initially) have something interesting or new to say. Building their profile around their research is an obvious starting point. But so is being very proactive in terms of media opportunities: if a story breaks and you can be on the phones selling your experts as a suitable commentator at 7am, you’ve got a better chance of pick up than three hours later. Improving their searchability on Google is also key. The more of a digital presence they have, even if it’s on smaller blogs or in trade titles, the more visible they’ll be as part of a search. Once their profile is established, people will start coming to you.
Don’t underestimate the value of traditional media: While not wanting to underestimate the power of digital and social media at all, it’s worth remembering that people do still consume traditional media channels. Indeed, for some audiences and some messages, it can still be the best way of reaching people.
Social media is key to differentiation for HEIs: The UK HE sector has previously been referred to as “the land of the bland”, with all 165 claiming exactly the same things: excellence in teaching, research and reach-out. Social media can undoubtedly help to underpin reputation and assist differentiation.
Best practice: University of Nottingham’s funny and informative short films about elements in the periodic table and good dynamic content on Facebook highlighting their reputation as a research-intensive university. Also, the University of Sunderland’s Lives Online project. Last year they had six students blogging, tweeting, posting pictures to give a vibrant picture of student life for applicants outside the north-east. They integrated this with more traditional parts of the marketing mix (such as open days) and applications from the target areas outside the home region soared.
Dominic Hannigan, press and communications officer, University of Wales, Newport
Video is key: Simply put, providing video or audio for the online version of publications helps to massively increase the chance of coverage, as well as make your own website and social media use more effective. The traditionalquestion “is the story good for photos?” has largely been replaced by “is the story good for photos and video?”
Top tip: Invest in quality video if you are using it for purposes beyond your own website. Also, provide both finished products, fully edited, and the raw footage so media outlets can edit it themselves.
Mario Creatura works in communications and PR for the HE sector
Change is needed: I’ve just completed a piece of research for the CIPR that shows the level of negative coverage of HE in the print media does not correspond with the positive messaging that is being churned out of the institutions and the mission groups. This is in part due to the lack of a unified response from HE communications functions. Lobbying bodies have their agenda, the government certainly does, as do HEIs. It is understandable that – when faced with 162 VCs commenting on the HE white paper – not all of the positive benefits of HE get through to journalists. This makes campaigns such as Universities Week necessary to create a positive profile of the sector.
Best practice: The team at the University of Hertfordshire have done some great campaigning videos using rough-and-ready video clipsposted on YouTube.
Resource: PR 2.0: Managing news in a digital world. A report prepared for the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Education and Skills Sector Group
Katrina James, press and PR officer, University of Bath
At the start of a campaign, think about how you will evaluate success: Column inches and the traditional methods of evaluating are, rightly, criticised for being unsophisticated measurement techniques. And with social, digital and online communications, they often aren’t relevant anyway. It is more suitable to look at whether the goal was achieved: ie full attendance at an event.
Kyle Christie, PR co-ordinator, King’s College London
Resource: Why Google Plus will work well within HE – the blogpost by Patrick Powers is not strictly for PR, but is still worth reading.