This guest post has been kindly contributed by Diana Blamires, the former Head of Public Relations at the University of Buckingham. She can be found on Twitter @diana_blamires.
Nothing is more important than PR right now. While universities shudder on the brink of possible disaster, PR is the best card in their hand. Though projected overseas student numbers are dismaying, many domestic students are still undecided and they are curious about what will be on offer at their chosen institution once the virus has abated.
PR teams need to recognise there are opportunities to get their message out but they must adapt. Many journalists are home schooling and working. Newspapers are struggling to run remotely. They have furloughed reporters and are short-staffed due to illness. Reporters’ inboxes have exploded – one national news correspondent tweeted that she had 6,000 unread emails. A look at the home news section of a paper reveals non-Corona stories are squeezed into a few paltry pages – the advertisers have fled so overall pagination has plummeted.
Education journalists are frustrated that many of their stories aren’t seeing the light of day. Some specialist BBC reporters have been asked to cover general news – it is all hands to the pump.
PRs need to dig deep and develop the persistence of an Apprentice contestant on a sales task. The early bird catches the worm – home schooling journalists are up at first light working before they hear the patter of small feet on the stairs. Send your pitch at 7am or even better – give it to journalists a few days earlier under embargo. Then, if there’s breaking news – such as UUK’s bailout package being agreed – the journalist has written your story up a day or so earlier. On the day, there’d be no time to do it with such a big story to cover.
When pitching, if you don’t get a reply to the first email don’t be afraid to try once more. If you have the journalist’s mobile, send a text. One education journalist said she doesn’t have time to read all her emails at the moment so suggested texting.
Creative thinking is vital. A few weeks ago I had to get a higher education news story out. Three national education correspondents wrote it up but, as an insurance policy, because there’s so much Coronavirus news, I went to all the online news editors too and some took the story. At 5pm that day, the country’s biggest education story broke – for the first time, schools were to shut. The education reporters’ pieces were ditched but – luckily – the online pieces had already been scheduled to go out and, amazingly, two appeared.
PR staff have to radically rethink content. While universities are effectively shut, journalists don’t want to run stories about plans for a great new approach to Freshers’ Week – board games instead of beer, for example – which may not even go ahead. It would also be deemed insensitive to run a story proclaiming how lockdown is working brilliantly for a particular group of students because of the struggling majority.
Higher education stories are getting into the press though. Oxford University at the forefront of producing a vaccine couldn’t be a better illustration of making the best possible use of PR – highlighting higher education research at its best. Medical students at the University of Buckingham and other universities have graduated early to help with the crisis – huge media pick up. The University’s Vice Chancellor, Sir Anthony Seldon, has been in the press talking about why January starts, offered at Buckingham and elsewhere, might be the solution rather than deferring a year. If your university is doing something unique or interesting in relation to the crisis or an aspect of it, such as home schooling, journalists are all ears.
Other articles making the papers are great research stories. Papers need light and shade. At the moment there’s so much serious news they crave quirky stories such as the University of Buckingham psychologists who discovered the eureka moment is often preceded by a Homer Simpson “D’Oh” disaster when things have gone horribly wrong.
With so many universities in such a precarious state, we desperately need PRs to hold a mirror up to all that’s good about the sector. We need to show the Government exactly why it’s vital for the cultural fabric of the country, as well as the economy, for the sector to have a large injection of state aid in order to preserve and enhance the future for our great higher education institutions.