Feeling under fire from a barrage of rankings? Barely a month goes by without a media league table of the world’s top universities and business schools. The wide variety of published tables from a range of sources such as Forbes, The Economist and the FT means that many schools constantly see significant rises and falls. With so many rankings on offer, the PR office is under increasing pressure from Deans, Vice-Chancellors and stakeholders to intelligently navigate this media minefield, share the news of rankings success, and produce a solid defence when things go the other way. So what should your rankings PR strategy be? Here are BlueSky Education’s top five tips for a coherent and sustainable approach to the rankings.
Define your battlefields, identify your strengths
Understanding the methodologies of the different rankings is key to knowing where your university or school is likely to excel. Different rankings place emphasis on different areas. The FT focusses on post-graduate salaries and research whereas BusinessWeek looks at student and employer satisfaction. If your school or university is unlikely to compete amongst the elite, focus on subject areas you are good at. It may be beneficial to build a long term strategy around this strength, gathering evidence highlighting successes within this area, investments made for example. This makes your performance look more credible to editors as it is a result of determined efforts. Note that it’s far easier to explain a 97<sup>th</sup> place ranking than not featuring in the top 100 at all. It’s important to be clear in your strategy of engagement, as journalists and potential applicants quickly assume if you are not in the top 100 it’s due to missing out, not non-participation.
Think whether a press release is beneficial
So your university or school has climbed places in the latest rankings, do you send out a press release to announce this, or keep your lips sealed as next month you might drop rankings? Editors receive a tsunami of emails announcing the latest success so local editorial coverage is much more likely. Yet, there may be an underlying reason for the success, editors are much more interested in trends that explain results or returns on strategy that you have pursued. So if you do turn to a press release, remember to include context and make your school’s performance part of a bigger picture. It is important to keep in mind that what goes up, has every chance of coming down. Make the most of your results, but be prepared for when your ranking falls, promoting a ranking one year and dismissing it the next is unlikely to build a sustainable discourse in the eyes of the media.
Positively engage with your stakeholders
The likes of Forbes and the FT require a minimum class size or alumni response rate to include your university or school in the rankings. Given the frequency of rankings, stakeholders can feel a sort of rankings fatigue and disengage from the process. Thus, it is important to highlight the particular rankings or the area within them that you are targeting (and why) to encourage their participation. Moreover let them know their time and efforts are appreciated.
Grasp the opportunities for editorial coverage
It is important to think ahead. Editorial content for the rankings is put together up to 10 weeks in advance in some cases. Thus it is key to prepare relevant news from your university or school, interesting student and alumni profiles, engaging opinion from the Dean or career trends emerging for example, to share with relevant media in the lead up to, and after, rankings are published.
Make PR influence your reputation and citation
The World University Rankings published by THE and QS place a lot of weight on academic reputation and citation. If nobody is aware of the great research coming out of your establishment there is no way you’ll get recognition or have your work referenced by the likes of the media or the SCOPUS Citation Index. Although the SCOPUS Citation Index mainly relies on academic journals for their measures, coverage in the BBC, NYTimes or Forbes may not count for citation, but can raise awareness and shift perceptions across the international academic community.
Rankings now have a firmly established part in the higher education circle, and the communications department can play a key role in managing the outcomes. However, if your university or school is in rankings free fall then that requires further assessment, so feel free to reach out to the BlueSky Education team to discuss one-on-one.
Originally posted June 2016.