Universities and Public Relations: How do universities innovate in PR?

This is a big ol’ post about public relations in higher education, based on today’s discussion over at The Guardian. I hereby give you advance warning that you may want to skip over this post if you’re not interested in behind the scenes university chatter. 🙂

I knew we’d be in for a fast-paced, interesting discussion on PR in higher education when David Colquhoun weighed in so forcefully with the first comment:

“Ah that’s nice. A meeting to consider how to communicate hyperbolic claims to the public. PR is simply paid lying. I maintain it has done a good deal of harm to universities. The public may not have a great depth of scientific knowledge, but they can spot advertising when they see it. And they can tell that most of the startling promises mad in press releases, or on the web, vanish without trace.”

BOOM!

By the way, if you don’t read Colquhoun’s Improbable Science, you really should check it out.

Colquhoun explained that staff must have a genuine interest in your audience. He explained, “If your hidden aim is to promote the university (or the authors), you’ll soon be spotted and you’ll bring into disrepute the university for which you work.”

While I don’t think disrepute is automatically brought upon a university in every single case, I do agree that PR should go way beyond simple promotion and getting stuff out to as many sources as possible. Good PR shows attention and care.

Pushing information out is useful only when it goes to relevant people, interested people, people who could benefit, people who could help causes further, and so on.

I’m talking about official channels of PR here. People who are paid to promote a university and what takes place within. On this point, Mario Creatura helpfully entered the discussion with some interesting points that are worth reproducing in depth:

“Each HEI will usually have at least one press or media officer (this is a drastic understatement). If they put out one traditional press release per day, then each HE journalist could in theory be bombarded with 165. Most HEIs put out more. Even if we ignore the targeted lists, that’s a lot for one journalist to cope with.

“As Matt wrote in his introduction, 90% of releases are ignored by the press. By sheer volume received alone this is understandable. The old one-direction shotgun approach of spraying press releases to all and sundry is no longer tenable.

“So my opening question is this: in a saturated market (evil word!) is it possible for universities to differentiate themselves to the media, and through them, to the public using digital and new media?”

Universities can use digital and new media to tap markets, but they still need an angle and they still need to care.

Moving to any new platform requires an understanding of how to best use the platform, as well as how to best broadcast relevant messages. Just shouting the same press releases from another place isn’t groundbreaking in itself.

Mike Simpson explained, “In an age when many people don’t get their news and information from the press, to depend on such methods is folly”. If a growing percentage of the public are accessing press releases and other channels directly, there is potential to engage with the public first hand.

Again, no matter what is done, those involved in the PR must care not just about the university and the job they are paid to do, but they must care about external communities and the messages they’re trying to communicate. PR isn’t solely about promotion, even if it does that very thing.

I’m sure that the majority of PR staff in universities do care beyond shoving out messages and promotion. But how do they deal with feedback? Do they consistently engage in listening to and responding to what’s being said about their brand? How are negative messages dealt with? Tracyplayle spoke about this early on in the conversation and is worth reading in full. [Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you…]

No matter how staff react and respond, there is still the little matter of whether or not any of the PR has worked. KatrinaBath picked up on this question:

“Column inches and the traditional methods of evaluating are (rightly in my opinion) criticised for being unsophisticated measurement techniques… and with social, digital and online communications it often isn’t relevant anyway.”

These new methods of communication are more easily analysed for clicks, conversations, comments, reach, and so on. It won’t prove whether PR has worked the way a university wishes, but it does begin to tell a story beyond mere column inches. And it’s trackable in realtime if required.

Nevertheless, as tracyplayle mentioned, “time and money issues remain, and until we crack those, we’re never going to be able to do really great comms in the HE sector”.

Tracyplayle also gave preliminary results based on 68 HEI responses on social and digital media for PR:

“More than half of HEIs view themselves as behind the curve in the use of social and digital media for PR (58%).

“The biggest barriers are: time (80% of respondents), skill/know-how (56.3% of respondents) and money/resource (52% of respondents).”

Clearly, there are still barriers even when an institution wants to engage with new and useful methods of communication.

Video

MikeSimpson asked if online video content should be ‘slick and professional’ or ‘a bit rough and ready’. My thought is that both are relevant. A brief look at YouTube alone is enough to see a popular mixture of both professional productions and amateur offerings. I remember the exposure Lincoln had when TomSka made his own ‘Banned’ University of Lincoln adverts. PR that didn’t even involve PR.

Official videos should adhere to a certain amount of production value, but the same shouldn’t automatically be said when a member of staff is making an independent video about their own work or an issue that shows what is being done within an institution.

Any video requiring an official logo/introduction, with full in-house production, should look relatively polished. It wouldn’t make sense to look anything other than professional.

I agree with rfcellis that “the bar on video content keeps on getting higher”, which results in having to keep up with developments and spending more time and money… the two things institutions are trying to save! That said, it is the content that matters, not the slickness. Professional enough is acceptable in most cases. People won’t care if what’s being dished out is useful and entertaining in content.

Lorna Gozzard uses a simple benchmark for quality:

“The question I always ask myself, is would I watch this?”

And in terms of moving away from press releases, Mario Creatura says “It is easier to watch a 30 second video than read a 300 word press release!”

Mario’s point points again toward information directly to the public, rather than to journalists and media agencies. Videos are already popular and there is still a lot more growth to come.

PR beyond PR

What does PR mean? MelonieFullick entered the debate by suggesting that it’s not all press releases and direct PR action:

“The idea has to be expanded to include what students and professors and staff do that brings attention to the university: all those things are the “message”, just as much (and even more than) a press release is.”

Fullick added that these messages cannot all be controlled. Due to this, PR is about relationship-building internally just as much as externally.

But all this takes time. Time that we have already established is not freely available. KatrinaBath said “I’m sure all HE press officers will agree that it can be hard to take time out from the daily routines and to-do lists to think creatively”.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a press officer doing all the work. Journalists and the public want to hear from ‘experts’. And universities have plenty of those! Mithulucraft suggested, “The question is then how can university PROs embrace that and use it to their advantage”. Could universities bring together a range of academics to talk on and dissect new research in a way that can be presented clearly to the public and allow further discussion off the back of it?

Kyle Christie and Mario Creatura pick up on the growing number of online outlets used by universities. Many channels originate outside the realms of press officers, but those PR staff should be aware of all those channels both to source stories and to help communications move in the most relevant areas.

Change the game

There was much talk of restructuring press releases and the fear that doing so may not benefit. However, The Guardian’s Matthew Caines seemed enthusiastic about many of the new ideas being suggested.

Could it be that what we think we know as useful is actually out of date?

Creatura explained that new strategies are still necessary, especially within the HE community:

“The majority of HE coverage is with specialist journalists when we discover a cure for this or a solution to that. That won’t ever go away. It’s whether the positive profile of the sector (in general national media) and the expertise of individual HEIs (in the niche and expert publications) can be effectively supported through modern media strategies.”

Adparker linked to a great social media news release template for institutions to use and suggested that these releases provide better media coverage results than traditional approaches.

As the conversation was coming to a close, Mario Creatura asked if the HE sector wasn’t brave enough to try new things:

“Can that slow and meticulous attention to detail in research be hindering the relatively instantaneous requirements for expert comment?”

It was a shame to see such an important question at the end of the live Guardian chat. But the end of a chat doesn’t mean the end of the discussion.

As with anything as wide ranging as PR in higher education, there are always more questions than answers. That shouldn’t stop us from searching for answers though. If nothing else, it will highlight new questions and yet more wonderful places to start searching.

The road is long. Never ending, perhaps. I guess we’d better make it an exciting journey then!

3 comments

  1. Excellent (and quick!) summary of what was a wonderfully frenetic discussion.

    Lots of passionate people discussing a topic that really does need more exposure to the HE sector.

    1. Thanks, Mario. So many important points were being made that I really wanted to put out a summary with my own thoughts as soon as possible.

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