The Soviet style world of university PR


LEFTFIELD:Univsersities are failing to communicate their worth to a sceptial public – the tools are there but there’s a fear or a snobbery about using them, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

ANY CASUAL observer of higher education in Ireland over the past year or two will have seen that universities and colleges have been facing what I might call, fairly robust criticism.

Doubts have been expressed about the efficiency of the sector, its work practices, its assessment of students, the quality of its graduates, and so forth.

I remember attending the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science a year or so ago and being amazed at the hostility of some of the politicians towards the academic community. There were additional signs of this recently when the university presidents were at the Public Accounts Committee.

From my own direct experience of Irish higher education, I am absolutely sure that many of these charges are either totally unfounded, or at least significantly exaggerated. But what is remarkable is that the universities seem to have been unable to persuade the wider public of the merits of what they do and of the quality of their achievements. Why is this so? Is it because these charges are right after all? Or is it because universities don’t know how to communicate?

Much of this is connected with the communications strategies used by our higher education institutions, and I cannot help feeling that these are increasingly unfit for purpose.

What do the colleges attempt to put in the public domain? Overwhelmingly, universities use press releases like the Soviet Union used reports on the last five-year-plan: stories of amazing successes and achievements, presented with all the compelling urgency of a report on meeting tractor production targets. I suspect that the readership figures are tiny, and a substantial proportion of the readers will be those named in each report.

I know that academics will – quite understandably – want to get public recognition for their achievements, but these announcements are too self-satisfied and self-congratulatory to have an impact on a wider audience. They sound more like propaganda than news, which is a shame as they often describe real advances and successes.

On the other hand, if you want universities to be thought leaders and to prompt national debate, particularly on higher education, their public statements need to be much more eye-catching.

As it is, they almost never contain any kind of thoughtful analysis or advocacy of the university or higher education position, no assessment of pedagogy, little debate on current higher education problems and issues, and only occasional discussion about resourcing or strategy.

In short, they rarely contain anything that will attract people looking for real insights, or policy analysis; and little that will persuade anyone to support the institution or the sector.

This approach carries over more generally into the institutions’ public relations strategies. Think of an important or sensitive issue, and you can be sure that any university’s position on it is to keep very silent in public.

This approach is in some ways understandable. Shouting over the airwaves can be risky if the topic is, say, current government policy, as politicians may find that irritating and may react in a hostile manner. But on the other hand, what has become alarmingly clear is that universities are not winning any of the arguments in the eyes of the public, in part because the public have no idea what case they are trying to make, or what arguments exist to back that case.

Universities also need to get much better at using social media. Twitter is a case in point. Increasingly, this is where people disseminate their ideas, distribute news and gather information. But if you look at the Twitter presence of the universities and colleges you would have to despair. Clearly unsure as to whom they are addressing in their tweets, the institutions end up just making really dry announcements, often about things like new internal publications and the re-routing of campus traffic.

Furthermore, the essence of Twitter is interaction, and there are no signs of that with any of them. There is no interaction because, frankly, nobody is interested. Using Twitter is useless if, rather than stimulating debate, you are curing insomnia.

The irony is that individual academics, and sometimes departments, are often rather good at all this. Sometimes a well placed article, tweet or comment by a prominent professor has stimulated national debate. Even students often manage to be innovative and entertaining in assessing their institutions, for example on Twitter and Facebook. Why can the universities as a whole not manage that?

It may be that some consider an active PR policy to be something that cheapens the noble aims of education, but if so, that is very much misplaced.

Higher education needs to win arguments, and you cannot do that if you do not know how to take part in the debate. We need to be out there making our case, and not just defensively when there has been some critical comment or other. We need to be leading the debate, not shutting it down with platitudes. Universities need to be thought leaders. It is time to re-appraise the sector’s whole public relations strategy. Urgently.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a former president of DCU