Some of you may have noticed that I tend to pay a lot of attention to university communications, both internal and external. It’s partly because this is one of the things I’ve researched (including for my Master’s thesis and my dissertation project); I also have a degree in communication studies and I’ve done some communications work myself, so I always find it interesting to see what approaches are being used.
That being said, I’ve noticed recently that there’s an interesting trend in Ontario postsecondary education marketing and branding, not just with the universities but also with associated higher education organizations. The strategies in a number of recent communications campaigns tend to involve inviting/soliciting members of a target group or groups – usually students – to participate in a contest. There is a prize offered, which could be a monetary reward, or a break on tuition fees, or perhaps a gadget such as an iPod. The winners also receive attention through the media campaign associated with the contest, and in an economy where attention is expected to translate into opportunities, this is seen as a reward in itself.
To highlight some examples: McMaster (My Day At Mac) ran a campaign inviting students to create content with their phones (e.g. videos) and submit these as representative of something essential or typical about the institution. I mentioned in a previous post the COU contest involving student-generated mental health social media plans; last month the COU also used a “virtual scavenger hunt” as part of their public outreach designed to bring attention to research in Ontario’s universities. York University has been running an ongoing campaign called “My Time” in which students submit “visions” of their own futures, with the winners appearing on promotional posters/images; and a recent contest from OCUFA involves students submitting videos wherein they talk about how they’ve been influenced by professors’ research, then encourage friends to vote for their video (thus increasing “likes” on Facebook and views on YouTube).
These strategies are partly about using the “we let you speak for us” approach, and in the current context it makes a lot of sense. There’s a lack of trust in highly processed organizational communication, which is seen as just another official “line” from the PR office, carefully designed to promote and persuade. Where universities in particular are not necessarily high-trust organizations (especially when it comes to communication), this suspicion is even more pronounced. Participation can also becomes something that students can point to as an achievement; it becomes part of their individual profile or “brand.”
But the need to reach audiences through “authenticity” poses a challenge, because it pits communicative control against the sense of realness that’s supposed to draw in an audience and encourage them to engage. Another complication is the unfolding context of social media, in which a desired level or type of control is seriously hindered by the possibility of audience spontaneity (including satire, derailment and abuse).
It could be argued that, particularly at universities, this kind of strategy gives students a “voice.” But hopefully students’ voices don’t have to be channelled through institutionally-sanctioned communication in order to be heard: while a contest attracts participants and creates a positive connection between them and the organization, it’s also a publicity project and it allows the organization to screen communicative content through the application process.
York’s “My time” provides a striking example. The focus is on a series of smoothly attractive black-and-white photographs overlaid with text that reveals students’ “visions” of what they will be doing in 15 or 20 years. The winner receives a year’s free tuition, with other prizes awarded to the runners-up. In this case, students not only provide the content: they are the content, and possibility is the product being sold, though it is framed as certainty (using phrasing like “I will” rather than “I want to”, for example). The message being sent is about the kinds of students York attracts and wants to attract, but at the same time of course, only selected students are allowed to do the representing. The campaign has since been expanded to include images of alumni and faculty.
Does a contest-based campaign work? I can only assume the metrics say “yes”, since these strategies are being employed by so many organizations, and since York’s efforts (for example) have now won an award. Such communication is produced within a larger context of increased marketization of (and consumerism in) university education; the Ontario government’s differentiation agenda; and the rising pressure to show the “value” of what universities do. All these factors contribute to the ways in which universities and other education-related organizations try to project and promote images of themselves, their members, and the work involved in research, teaching and learning.