Universities need to face media disconnect

Journalists receive hundreds of eager press releases daily, the vast majority of which champion student achievements, new buildings and investments, glowing statistical results, or vice chancellor pronouncements on what’s best about their higher education institution (HEI). Most of the things they don’t want.

By comparison, put the word ‘university’ into Google news on any given day and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll receive an opening page dominated by lecturers accused of wrongdoing, student misadventure, union pay disputes and spiralling applications.

So why the huge disconnect between communication hopes and reality? In the face of no or bad news, universities often disengage from media after convincing themselves ‘they’re only interested in negative stories.’

Alternatively they blame the PR team for a lack of ability in placing details of their achievements. One of the worst feelings you can experience as a PR manager are the highs of coverage in THE, BBC and the Guardian one day, and the sudden low of hammering on closed doors.

Universities want to be seen, loved and respected, while journalists seek to investigate, question and expose. PR is the facilitator that finds a middle ground between these uneven agendas, yet is often criticised for failing to live up to the expectations of both.

I caught up with a comms agency colleague recently who quickly began to share the latest gossip about in-house PR heads from HEIs around the country – “did you hear about so and so? They’ve gone on stress leave, oh and XXX, they’ve had a breakdown…” The list went on and on.

This prompted me to conduct a brief 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 of 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 PRs seem set up to fail, or at least find themselves caught between impossible demands from employers and press.

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 the redundancy of hundreds of staff. Such a lack of self-awareness and empathy cannot be fixed.

The media aren’t always entirely helpful either. 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 newspaper which was thrilled at 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 became nervous of upsetting several politicians.

Much of this disconnect could be minimised if universities pause for a moment and adopt a more targeted approach. If you employ PR specialists, listen to them and understand 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.

Here are some 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 make your comments accurate. No one appreciates exaggeration or ‘harmless’ fibs.

Know your audience

Who do you want to talk to and why? Featuring in obscure academic journals when your objective is to attract students is pointless. Where do your audiences get their information from?

Be newsworthy

Be ‘new, impactful, dramatic, quirky and topical.’ Think about visual opportunities and unique insight from interesting interviewees. Always consider the ‘so what?’ and ‘what’s in it for me?’ of your audiences.

Keep it brief

We are developing Tweet-length attention spans. Briefly explain the ‘who, what, why, where, and when’ to busy media.

Support your ‘heroes’

Give star academics the time and space they need to take part in media activities. If you have experts who are informative and entertaining they will help bring your institution’s views to life.

Use the right media

Local or national newspapers, specialist magazines, the web, videos or social media. Look at successful stories in the area you’re considering and learn from the best examples.


Cutback 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 them.

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 Ltd