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Margin Notes

Spare a thought for university communications offices

The PR problems universities face can be silly, but things can also go spectacularly bad.


Universities seem to have to deal with some pretty astounding public-relations implosions from time to time. I think it’s partly due to the nature of the institution and its mandate, the competing interests and the diffuse structure of its governance. The university president can lead, but unlike a corporate CEO, he or she is rarely truly in charge to impose message control and manage events. Herding cats comes to mind.

The PR problems universities face can be silly or just irksome – an amorous kiss in a promotion video, for example, or a Twitter hashtag campaign going “distinctively” off-message. But things can also go spectacularly bad, and the spark of controversy can come from anywhere and unexpectedly – like, say, from some dentistry students’ Facebook group.

Through it all, university communications and media relations officers are there to try to reduce the splatter. It can’t be easy.

The job is becoming more complex, too. Not just because the institutions continue to expand and evolve, but also because of the proliferation of new digital communications channels. To quote Ken Steele of Academica Group – who was talking about recruitment but whose comments are also applicable to university communications – “They haven’t been able to let go of the old media and have been trying to do more and more things with the same budget.”

Paradoxically, I think working in university communications can be a great job. I have often said, as an editor at University Affairs, how fortunate I am to cover the university sector. Every human activity, every natural and physical phenomenon, the deep philosophical issues of existence, are all potentially the subject of study or discourse at a university. At their best, universities are exciting places full of youth, idealism and creativity. What story shall we cover today?

But, of course, universities are also large, complex bureaucracies filled with some big egos and occasional nastiness. I can’t help but think of that famous, though perhaps apocryphal, quote: “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” I don’t actually agree with that – the stakes are not small – but the pettiness can make it seem that way.

In my experience, there have been some very good, and some very bad, university communications departments. At one university that shall remain nameless, the constantly revolving staff was legendary and their default attitude towards the media was always suspicious. At others, there are familiar names who have been there for many years unfailingly doing their best to attend to the media’s requests.

I’d be interested to hear from those working in the trenches. What has your experience been?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Christine Szustaczek / January 29, 2015 at 09:28

    Thanks for highlighting our work, Leo. I have had the privilege of working in higher ed communications for 15 years, within university and college departments and as a consultant to both. I’ve often been caught saying that we have the best job on campus because we’re both enablers and integrators. As enablers, we write stories that bring people’s work and passion to life and help to amplify their messages through a wide range of channels – both traditional and non. We’re integrators because we spend our days trying to learn about every corner of the institution and can often help to make connections or can spot emerging themes and trends about the strengths of our schools. I find working in this sector tremendously rewarding for two reasons. First, we see how education changes lives, through the success stories we share about our alumni. Secondly, I find that the sector itself attracts people who are values-based and who want to help others succeed. It’s a pleasure to come to work when you know your colleagues – be they faculty or staff – are interested in advancing the greater good, through their research, teaching or support of our fantastic students. In addition to promoting our messages with external audiences, we also spend our time on internal communications, helping those within the institution to be aware of vision, mandates, points of pride, priorities. Good departments spend time asking and listening to internal stakeholders and sharing their views, interests and concerns with administrators. Failing to do so runs the risk of launching external communications campaigns that aren’t authentic and that can spawn the types of implosions you alluded to in your article.

  2. James Shute / February 10, 2015 at 11:05

    After decades of explaining to students the distinction between “communication” (the process of exchanging messages) and ” communications” (the techniques and devices used to communicate), it is dismaying to see university communication officers continuing this sloppy usage.

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