Education journalists are often invited to dispense advice about how universities can communicate their missions and achievements better.
But the people who convene media panels at academic conferences seem to expect to hear some magic trick in social media or branding that will vault their institution to the top of the reputation rankings. The truth is quite the opposite. Higher-education communications is a day-in day-out slog. It’s a waste of time for a university public affairs department to hope that they will come up with a clever video that will “go viral” and put their institution at the top of the charts. In reality, such sudden bursts of publicity are just as apt to be negative as they are to be positive.
Even when a university has what truly qualifies as exciting news—a faculty member who has won a Nobel Prize, for instance—it will be much better positioned to take advantage of such events if it has done the daily work of earning trust and respect with media outlets. If that work has been done, reporters will know a university communications teams isn’t wasting their time when someone leaves a voice mail or sends an e-mail saying the university wants to inform them about a “groundbreaking development.” Earning reporters’ respect means returning their phone calls when public-relations staffers would much rather avoid them, and being honest when it would be easier to lie or stonewall.
The day-in, day-out work of building relationships with those able to influence public opinion also means reaching out to “influencers”— politicians, corporate leaders, public intellectuals—who are in a position to tell others what an institution is achieving. The university’s leaders need to engage in stewardship—having regular meetings with such influencers. Those meetings shouldn’t just happen when university leaders need something, such as money, a policy change, or a tax break, but as routine communication to keep the influencers informed about university developments.
Here are some other key Do’s and Don’ts I would suggest:
Worry about the quality of an institution first and worry about communicating it later. A surprising number of universities do the opposite.
Hire faculty members who can write well and are interested in explaining their field to others. The result of such hires is professors who do their own outreach, putting an institution in- a good light.
Reward great teachers. Teaching is the world’s best academic public relations and it has a life-long effect. Students remember great teachers and respond to those institutions that gave them good teachers. I remember the professors who taught me the poetry of William Butler Yeats and the novels of Tolstoy to this day.
Encourage community service. This may sound more like administrative advice than communications advice, but universities who encourage faculty members and students to help an institution’s neighbors find the institutions pass through crises and political transitions much more gracefully than institutions that don’t do such service. Universities that emphasize community service have resilience—they have friends when they need them. Their strong word-of-mouth local reputations can also swell into good regional and global reputations.
Don’t hire corporate PR firms and communications consultants. Typically they cost more money and get less done. Do hire high-quality communications staff who care about an institution and build relationships outside and inside the institution. I often tell the story of a young public relations staff member who got to know all the professors at his institution and when they were going to be publishing research. He didn’t wait for professors to come to him—he reached out to them. They came to respect him for his interest in their research and trusted his advice. Reporters were spared premature press releases. But when the results of important research were published, they got the attention they deserved.
Don’t force communications staff to grind out press releases or Facebook posts. Measuring by volume instead of by results creates noise; it doesn’t build messages. Keep an eye on results: Time visitors spend on an institutional website, the quality and number of applicants an institution gets. But remember communications metrics can create a false sense of achievement. In the long run a communications department should try to measure all the ways, large and small, that a university has changed the world for the better. Then everyone at the institution involved may find themselves at a famous university.
This commentary is a version of a short talk given at the conference “Reinventing Higher Education,” organized by IE University, in Madrid.