NIC MITCHELL welcomes the overarching theme for this year’s conference of European higher education communicators at the University of Kent at the end of June.
IT CAN be all too easy to overlook one of the most powerful assets to a university’s brand in the rush to impress external stakeholders.
For while we professional communicators are busy trying to impress a whole host of important target audiences – from business & industry to political leaders and the funding bodies; not forgetting parents, careers advisers and, of course, the media – we can sometimes forget that the most important people influencing our reputation are inside our walls and leafy campuses.
That’s why it is so timely that this year’s annual conference of the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers (EUPRIO) is focusing on students, staff and alumni. These are the people, who – if treated right – can be a university’s best brand ambassadors.
The EUPRIO conference takes place from June 27-29 at the University of Kent in Canterbury (pictured above) and the numbers already signed up from communications departments across Europe show that the theme is a ‘hot topic’ for universities battling to defend, and if possible enhance, their reputation and position in global and national rankings.
We all know a university’s reputation is among its most important assets – something that usually takes decades, if not centuries, to build up.
But in today’s digital age, it can be seriously damaged if students, staff and graduates feel their interests have been disregarded and ignored in pursuit of goals they do not understand, let alone share.
Neglecting what was once somewhat casually described as the “internal audiences” is something no-one can afford to do – and it is not enough to simply offer a bland, or even worse Pravda-style newsletter, and think you’ve filled the communications needs of students and staff.
Carefully crafted press releases about the wonders of University X also carry less weight these days. Young and influential audiences now turn to alternative sources for most of their information.
Today everyone is, or can be, their own publisher. So a disgruntled group of staff disgusted by what they see as an abuse of power, or a cohort of students fed-up with lectures being constantly cancelled without notice, can find a plethora of communication channels to voice their concerns to the world at large and put off others from studying or working for your university.
From Facebook to twitter, to peer review websites and the national and international student surveys which feed into national and global rankings – students and staff can inflict a great deal of damage to a university’s reputation within an incredibly short time-frame.
On the other hand, students and staff along with our alumni can be very powerful positive voices. They can give independent, or at least semi-independent, verification to back-up a university’s marketing messages.
In the same that we turn to Trip Adviser before deciding which hotel to book for our holiday, so today’s students and staff seek out what they hope to be independent sources of informations about the quality of our teaching, research and the student experience before deciding to study or work at our universities.
And so back to the EUPRIO conference at Kent: Among the speakers I’m particularly looking forward to learning more from is Mike Young from the University of Copenhagen, who will tell how the university has created a campus online news service in English to integrate Danish and international students and help brand Copenhagen as a truly international university.
I’m also intrigued by Paul Helbing’s workshop on Branding the rebels.
The Director of Communications at Amsterdam’s University of Applied Sciences, says despite the best efforts of departments like his – is anyone really listening? “Students, teachers, researchers and alumni make their own minds up what they should think and broadcast their frank opinions through twitter, Facebook, blogs and the like.”
Paul is particularly critical of managements that try to ‘tame’ their rebels – saying: “Be proud of your rebels. They are your unique selling point!” Can’t wait to hear more…
As you’d expect there’s plenty in the programme about the never-ending transformation bought about by social media – with Tracy Playle, from England, leading a workshop on Content really is King: rethinking your approach to engaging your community and Rob Speekenbrink and Karlijn de Wit giving a joint workshop on How to train your social media ambassadors while Miles Banbery’s session will be focusing on the balancing act required for building a network of student tweeters.
Delegates can follow a student, staff or alumni strand through the conference or select a ‘mix and match’ series of workshops and masterclasses to suit their needs.
The grand finale ‘working’ session on Saturday afternoon promises to be something new, when leading figures from the student movement across Europe come together to give their views on ‘university branding’ from the students’ perspective.
The question-and-answer round table session will be chaired by Jack Grove, who covers European higher education for the Times Higher Education magazine. The panel of experts have a wealth of experience representing student opinion and consist of Daniel Stevens (pictured), the recently re-elected as International Students’ Officer for the National Union of Students UK; Karina Ufert, the retiring Chair of the European Students’ Union, and Emanuel Alfranseder, President of the Erasmus Student Network.