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?