With increasing pressure on educational institutions to tap into new markets and find new revenue streams, a well thought out PR strategy can prove invaluable in brand awareness.
In addition, by being proactive and reactive, educators can champion faculty members with expertise and establish themselves as leaders in the education sector.
In times of criticism and crisis such as rising student fees or falling student satisfaction rates, a good relationship with media can help to ensure the education sector gets heard and issues are explored rather than limited to a one-sided debate.
So how can universities, colleges, and training providers create or refine a PR strategy that helps build brand awareness and raise profile?
A good place to start developing a PR strategy is by examining what your competitors are. How are they positioning their brand and what marketing channels are they using? Understanding key competitors is crucial to determine their brand positioning, market differentiators and messaging across channels.
For example, do their channels include owned media, such as their website and social media, earned media, or paid media (paid search, online display, paid social media posts, etc.) What do you like or dislike about their brand positioning and how would you like your institution to differentiate itself from theirs?
Looking further afield, are there any non-direct competitors whose PR strategy is worth emulating? It is worth reflecting on what your institution has done in the past as well as any lessons learned from past PR efforts?
All these questions will help to form or refine a strategy that will work in your marketplace.
Understand brand perception
The most important element of a PR strategy is to understand what a brand stands for. To do this it’s key to assess an institution’s reputation, sentiment and brand perception.
An understanding of this will provide an in-depth analysis of strengths and weaknesses among its target audience. This type of research is a great way to identify opportunities to seize a position in the market that is largely untapped.
If running focus groups within and outside your organization is beyond budget constraints, it is still possible to gauge brand perception by using social media channels or creating an online survey.
Remember not to focus only on either the positive or negatives associated with your brand, rather try to create an honest assessment of where it is now and where it should be.
This will help to develop a plan to capitalize on what is already working and reassign resources from areas that are no longer repaying the effort.
Refine USPs, think firsts and only's
Creating or refining a PR strategy is the perfect opportunity to explore what makes your institution unique. Ask:
- What are the stand-out features that make students want to enroll?
- What attributes separate your institution from competitors?
- What has the feedback been from alumni on why they chose your institution?
The USPs don’t necessarily have to be academic or athletic, they could be a campus tradition, something your institution did before anyone else, staff-student ratio or even something as quirky as a mascot.
Think about “firsts” and “only's” – was your institution the first one to offer places to women or minorities or purchase a new type of technology? Is it the only institution to offer a particular course of study?
Be known for something, but make sure it’s something that your institution would like to be known for!
Craft a boilerplate
Ultimately a boilerplate is used in a press release or the press section of a website to explain who your institution is and what it stands for in three simple lines.
A well-crafted one will help to get the salient points across to a journalist. It is worth creating a downloadable media kit with up to date contact details, interesting statistics about your institution, graphics, and photographs.
For journalists working on tight deadlines having facts available at their fingertips will definitely work in your institution’s favor.
Assign relevant staff to PR
One of the biggest gripes from journalists in relation to higher education is the lack of clarity around who to contact for comment.
A way to combat this is to ensure that there is an easy to find contact online through the website and social media channels. Assign answering these queries to an individual or team to ensure queries are not missed.
In addition, ensure the PR team has a list of faculty to contact on relevant areas of expertise so they know who to go to for comment. This will means time isn’t wasted chasing for an answer but rather concentrate on crafting the best one in collaboration with the relevant person. Develop a database of contact details and areas of expertise alongside records of past contributions to media by staff members.
Providing media training to selected staff and faculty members can overcome objections such as concerns about saying the wrong thing or fears about stage fright if asked to comment live on air.
Account for crisis management
There may come a time when a media outlet has published an article with negative commentary either about your institution or a faculty member.
Take the University of Missouri as an example when they faced hunger strikes by the football team, racial incidents and massive protests. Resulting ‘inaction’ by the university made the situation worse while subsequent attempts at reconciliation, such as the appointment of a Chief Diversity Officer came too late. 3 years later enrollment figures are down more than 35%.
To avoid issues blowing out of control, a PR strategy needs to include crisis management as a way to deal with negative publicity if it arises. A clear plan of action that can be implemented during a crisis can help prevent things from escalating into a catastrophe.
Rather than waiting for media to approach for comment, craft stories of interest to pitch to relevant publications. While appointing a new Head of Business or a new tranche of courses to a portfolio may be of interest to your faculty, it is rarely newsworthy.
Instead, look at offering articles that comment on the education sector or are focused on societal issues such as new government initiatives that will hinder education. Visually appealing stories may attract the attention of the picture editor if the press release has accompanying photographs, video or graphics.
Think about how your institution can engage with calendar events such as public holidays, awards ceremonies, and local, national or even international stories. Have your alumni had success in their fields since graduation? If they are well known, is their connection to your institution equally well known?
The issue with media is that often they don’t have a lot of time between reaching out for comment and publication.
Therefore it’s key to get back with a quote (if your institution wants to quote) in an agreed timeframe. News articles tend to need comment within 12-24 hours, while features can be more flexible.
Make sure the contact details on your website are kept up to date and if the relevant contact person is on leave that someone else is assigned to deal with queries in their absence. Simply being easily accessible to journalists can lead them to think favorably of your institution.
Get faculty involved
Faculty expertise is a crucial component of a successful higher education marketing strategy. By nature, academics are researchers and thought leaders and can increase the effectiveness of a strategy in many ways.
Creating original and evergreen content such as a blogs, infographics or podcasts can go a long way to helping to raise the profile of a faculty member and institution.
Remember that everything published online is searchable and therefore when a journalist researches a certain topic, a blog post in that area may appear in their feed be it from 12 days ago or 2 years. It makes your institution easier to find and shows expertise in a niche area that journalists are looking for.
With 86% of undergraduates owning a smartphone and nearly half owning a tablet virtually every student is connected online at all times and has a presence through a variety of social media channels. It makes sense, therefore, to seek students’ engagement in creating content.
A shared hashtag across social media channels can allow the PR team to monitor, highlight and champion PR possibilities that might otherwise remain invisible. While there might be some risks associated with this strategy the benefits of an effectively run social media campaign could be worth the risk. After all who can be stronger advocates for an institution than the people who choose, and pay, to be there?
Whatever strategy your institution decides to adopt, make sure to monitor and alter it if necessary. While creating a PR strategy takes time and effort, having one in place means that you can make the most of success stories and be well placed to deal with any negative ones.
This can give your institution the competitive edge, allow your staff to be recognised as experts and thought leaders and your institution to be the first, if not only, choice for students.