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How higher and business education PR has evolved

It’s natural to expect that, over the course of time, the ways in which a university or business school operates will change. The past five years alone have been testament to just how much the world of education has evolved; the advancements in and preferences for online education over classroom-based learning for example, or the shift in curriculum focus to highlight increasingly important topics such as ethics and sustainability, all in the pursuit of providing a better, more valuable experience for students.

And, of course, when these institutions dedicate themselves to revamping their programmes or overhauling their image, it’s also natural to expect that they’d want to share this positive news as widely as possible – with partners and potential stakeholders, alumni, students and prospective candidates.

Which is why it seems strange, even counterintuitive, to me that many of those in charge of sharing such news and expertise with the wider world are following the same old routines and engaging in the same activities they were five years ago.

Like higher education (along with almost every other industry on the planet), the media landscape is constantly evolving. Because of this, the same practices that were once fail-safe methods of effective media engagement no longer return the same calibre of results. And some frequently return no results at all.

So, what needs to change?

Most importantly, targeting the top tier should not always be the top priority

Sounds crazy, but allow me a moment to explain. The media landscape has shifted dramatically in the last few years. With the internet available anytime, anywhere and on any device there has been a huge shift in how people choose to read their news, and where they choose to receive it from. As a result, there are now a greater amount of news sources than ever before, allowing readers an almost overwhelming amount of choice.

With all these publications needing content, you would think it would make it easier to secure a journalist’s time and interest, right? Well, actually, no. With so many outlets covering similar topics, and with the internet opening them up to a wider global audience, competition is rife. To differentiate, many publications have sought to solidify their identities – narrowing down their focus or altering their reporting styles in order to become the news outlet of choice for readers.

For business and higher education, opportunities within the top tier have become increasingly thin on the ground. For biz-ed in particular, we fondly remember the days when the Financial Times would publish two or more pages each Monday dedicated to programme and school news, Deans’ perspectives and student and alumni testimonial, but these days the daily paper carries a significantly smaller amount of stories, preferring to stick to broader themes of either “management” or “work and careers” of which specific business education stories are just one of the many narratives vying for editorial attention. Such articles are now almost exclusively limited to appearing in special reports and rankings magazines which, whilst they’re fantastically valuable to secure, are much harder to come by. 

Other daily newspapers have followed a similar transition. Looking specifically at the UK press, it has been a number of years now since either the Independent or the Times newspapers published their Masters in Management or Business Education-specific supplements – once a regular feature of both publications. The Economist is another once coveted outlet which has, in recent years, significantly reduced its education-focused coverage. Similarly, the Guardian’s Higher Education Network has, in recent years, sought to focus on the politics of education institutions rather than the nuts-and-bolts of programmes or student experiences.

So, what’s left?

Well, the shrinking focus of national outlets has provided greater opportunity for others to step in to take up the mantle of providing high quality news and features for the higher education sector. Increasingly, online-based outlets such as QS Top Universities/ QS TopMBA, BusinessBecause and Study International are becoming the news outlets of choice for applicants around the world keen to get an insight into what life enrolled on a particular programme or at a specific institution is really like. Such publications can be found based in every corner of the world, but attract a global audience, enabling the content you share with these outlets to be accessed at both a local and international level.

An additional benefit is that such publications expand on these topics in a way that top tier publications were not always able to do – dedicating time to deep-diving into programme specifics, or interviewing a Dean at length as their readership crave this additional level of detail, and to do this at a much higher frequency to keep their content fresh.

And that is where your value lies

With a greater variety of outlets comes a greater opportunity for broadening your voice. For example, a similar trend can be found within other industry-specific media, which allows opportunity for faculties and academics to share their research directly with the sector it’s aimed at – helping to boost your institution’s profile – and for your alumni working in the sector to share their career successes and histories, helping to illustrate to any potential applicant readers exactly why they should consider enrolling at your institution.

Such publications are also keen to keep growing and, as a result, are experts when it comes to sharing their content on social media. This means your articles will be shared, recommended and reread by others, as well as enabling your student and faculty interviewees to engage further.

Should I focus all my attention on industry specific media?

I’m not advocating for educational institutions to completely forfeit the top tiers and deliberately look elsewhere (after all, the FT is still a fantastic hit!), but instead to highlight the increasing value that high quality sector-specific media provides. Being able to share your messages more frequently and with a broader variety of outlets and audiences can do nothing but boost your institution’s visibility and appeal outside of your existing networks – helping to bring greater and increasingly diverse applicants to your programmes. Which is, of course, exactly what a good PR campaign is designed to do.

And for all that keeps on changing, the key necessary elements for success stay the same; devising an effective comms strategy, understanding the media you’re pitching to, knowing the value of timing, securing great spokespeople and of course, a well-written, well-targeted press release – all of which we can help you create.

Kerry Ruffle-2Author: Kerry Ruffle

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