March 28, 2019
/ by Sarah Parker
PR and other communications professionals in higher education face unique challenges in addition to exceptional opportunities; extra scrutiny around collegiate sports comes alongside an increase in budget, for example. Because of this colleges and universities can’t depend on the same plans or timelines that other brands do.
Fortunately for any higher ed comms pros reading now, the spring season is the perfect time to pull the PR lever to drive enrollment, funding, and rankings!
We’ve had the opportunity to work with many academic institutions, and before "Decision Day" rolls around we wanted to share top tactics that work. In 2019, communicators have to go beyond simply measuring goals or media monitoring.
For applicants and their parents, going to a top-tier research school can be a huge factor in decision making. The caliber of research professors and their work directly affects enrollment, grants, and new opportunities for students.
That makes it vital to track your influential faculty and their research (see more on influencer marketing in higher ed here). It's important to break the university bubble and make sure new discoveries don’t just get written about in the university press and maybe the local paper. Keep your finger on the pulse to ensure the research at your university is reaching the public eye by building relationships with the right journalists and other influencers who have a larger reach across different social platforms. (The right science journalist might be just the boost one of your astrophysics professors needs, for example.)
Be sure to include other inner-university celebrities in your strategy since they have an audience of their own. Set up tracking (shown below) on stellar alumni or professors to stay up to date on their funding, awards, publications, and anything else that is relevant to your university’s brand.
With the right strategy in place, you can also tap into any trending topics they’re a part of to leverage coverage for your own brand and drive traffic back to your site.
The news cycle in 2019 is relentless and that means reputation threats are everywhere; it doesn’t require much for your institution to be in headlines and trending across social channels. PR teams should always be looking for opportunities to avoid a crisis by keeping careful tabs on the conversation. People often rely on what they hear from friends, peers, and even the rants of random strangers on the internet more than information from faculty or official press releases.
That doesn’t mean you don’t need an official crisis strategy in place; it means that you need a strategy that is flexible and able to reach across audiences and media formats. When it comes to reputation management, make sure that you have effective monitoring tools in place for both traditional and social media. It is important to understand the relationship of total coverage and how your brand reputation is related to that. This will enable you to determine the scale of damage— or lack thereof.
For example, your monitoring tools might determine that a student from your campus is all over the news with 50+ mentions after his participation in the latest iteration of the Tide Pod Challenge (remember that?) but less than 4% of that coverage mentions your institution in the headlines. So, in this case, issuing a public statement from your president might do more harm than good.
Get our comprehensive guide to crisis comms here.
Colleges and universities face something of a blessing and a curse. Journalists love to quote academics, but you have a LOT of topics to choose from. All departments are working towards a main set of goals or core values, but each department also has individual goals or metrics to watch. This can lead to each department doing its own thing and creating a dilution of key messages.
Decide, as an institution, which stories are most important to share with the public. That doesn’t mean that you should ignore an unexpected opportunity to chime in on a relevant topic, but every interaction with the media should be done thoughtfully and with your higher purpose in mind. Once decided, it's important to track how your top messages are resonating with your audience and which departments are getting the most impactful coverage. That will help you tweak your strategy going forward.
Not only do academic institutions have different departments on campus with diverging interests, but you also have multiple audiences. Students, parents, alumni, administration, faculty, and the community all have their own expectations and needs for communications. Of course, they do have some shared interests as well.
A comprehensive PR strategy must take into account each of these segments both internally and externally. Identify the different communication channels, publications, and networks favored by each one. Track coverage in trade, national, state, or local publications (shown below) to help determine which campaigns or tactics resonate best with various audiences across the globe.
Social media is an inextricable part of what PR professionals do and it’s especially important for higher education since prospective students have now grown up as digital natives while faculty, alumni and community members are all engaged on social in various levels for their own careers and personal lives. What people want from each type of network is different, so you’ll need to think about your approach to Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and any others that make sense depending on your specific audience.
It pays to connect with influencers on each network and let them help spread your content and messages. Of course, with the right monitoring software in place, these networks provide a view into what each of your audiences is thinking and talking about online. You can spot trends of interest, a brewing crisis comms disaster, or relevant hot topics and incorporate each of these into your social media content strategy accordingly.
It’s 2019, so everything is somewhat political; many consumers increasingly want brands to take a stand on social and political issues and it stands to reason that colleges and universities aren’t exempt from that as students consider what kind of higher education environment they want to enroll in, alumni consider how involved they want to be in spreading the messages of their former institutions and academics work to shape the reputation of that institution (or distance themselves from it).
Every spokesperson should be prepared to address related questions and be comfortable explaining why the institution brings value to the community and everyone who attends it. Tracking trending topics (shown below) are vital to keeping your department heads and spokespeople knowledgeable on trending industry topics.
Rivalries aren’t only for football! Academics don’t think about competition in the same way that other brands do, but every institution is trying to share their own messages and get mentioned by the press. It pays to pay attention to what they are saying, what is working for them, and which messages are getting through to their audiences.
You may be able to make your own school part of the conversation or learn some new tactics that you can emulate. PR analytics software enables you to measure your share of voice against your peers and see which messages are resonating for them.
PR in higher education isn’t easy, but you’ve got a lot to work with. If you have the right tools at your disposal, you can help achieve the most important goals of your organization.
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