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Getting bang-for-buck from university communications

  • 30 March 2017

On Thursday, 30th March, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) publishes a new report by Richard Garner, the UK’s longest-serving education correspondent, entitled Return on investment? How universities communicate with the outside world (Occasional Paper 16).

Drawing on over 35 years’ experience at the Independent, the Mirror and the Times Educational Supplement, the author:

  • recounts initiatives that worked;
  • reveals how universities can receive more positive coverage; and
  • shows how the media have changed.

Richard Garner, the author of the report, said:

Higher education is getting more space in the media and there are more outlets of different types. But there is less understanding and knowledge of universities by those who write about them. This is the biggest challenge facing those who are paid to promote the image of the sector but, given the quality of British higher education, it is far from impossible.

While universities do not always help themselves in how they approach the media, I would advise journalists to listen to them. The essence of media relations with the higher education sector is dialogue, not press releases.

Commenting on the report, Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI said:

Media coverage of higher education has exploded while the number of education journalists has shrunk. Bigger university communication teams have taken up the slack, but they could be more responsive to how the media now operate.

Half-cooked stories that don’t resonate with journalists are counter-productive and waste time and money. Yet it is possible to get a fair hearing for our fantastic universities, even on trickier topics, when the stories are interesting, the lessons are clear and the academics are accessible. Above all, not all interesting news has to be bad news.

The report provides a conservative estimate of at least 600 people working in university public relations departments across the UK, at a cost of £20 million a year in salaries alone. Using a series of examples, the author shows this spending could be used more efficiently.

  • Some academics are better at publicising their work: Richard Garner reveals how one academic refused to summarise their work on primary school testing because it ‘could not possibly be encapsulated in 1,200 words’. Yet others make themselves available and push the most notable aspects of their work.
  • Media outlets have been transformed in recent decades: Many newspapers once had two education correspondents. Today, specialist education correspondents are much rarer and have to provide online content too, as well as to promote stories on social media. They have less time to work up stories from scratch.
  • Some issues are more likely to secure coverage: Universities are wary of contested subjects, such as social mobility, the impact of Brexit and the results of academic research. But a constructive and responsive press office can secure effective coverage without wasting resources.

The report makes the following recommendations:

  • In a world where people get their news from multiple sources, universities should consider a wide range of media outlets for their stories, as well as ensure a strong social media presence.
  • Universities should not just look to education correspondents to get their stories out. Business and science correspondents can also provide opportunities to propagate ‘human interest’ stories and to emphasise the importance of higher education to the UK economy.
  • With the contraction of the press, journalists have less time to research stories. So, to ensure coverage, universities should research their chosen media outlet thoroughly and tailor their material to fit the audience.

Note for Editors:

  • Richard Garner is the UK’s longest serving education correspondent, having worked on the Birmingham Evening Mail, the Mirror and the Independentfrom 1980 to 2016. He currently writes a column for the Times Educational Supplement.
  • The paper includes a Foreword by Alistair Jarvis, Deputy Chief Executive of Universities UK, who notes: the diversity in news outlets; the internationalisation of the media; the changing function of university press officers; and the addition of communication executives to university leadership teams.
  • HEPI’s mission is to ensure policy-making is informed by evidence and research. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan.

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