Public relations is all about reputation. When done effectively, it influences opinion and behaviour to create an excellent understanding – as well as cultivate a relationship – between an institution and its target audiences. In the business education industry, PR is used to promote business schools and often uses stories involving alumni, faculty and research to get consistent coverage in highly relevant media.
And it’s becoming more important because the business school market is increasingly crowded and competitive. Currently, there are over 13,000 business schools around the world, all jostling to be picked over the others.
Unfortunately, pushing a classroom teaching method or telling everyone about a new building is not always enough. If schools are repeating similar messages, journalists are unlikely to write on these topics unless they are truly ground-breaking. We’re talking about the standard of Imperial College Business School’s hologram lecturers or Durham University Business School’s building on stilts.
So how do you effectively use PR to promote your school?
Being able to draft a press release is a highly valuable skill in business education PR. A good press release is still a quick and effective way to target appropriate journalists with key information. Often, press releases are an especially great way to show off business school faculty research in a way that will swiftly appeal to journalists.
However, press releases sometimes have a bad reputation, thanks to the work of those that do not know how to craft one effectively. As some wrongly herald the death of the press release, it remains a fact that they are an important tool in business education PR and there’s a knack to writing them.
They need to be short. About 250 – 400 words maximum. This is usually a few paragraphs with room for quotes. Journalists will ignore anything that has any superfluous material. There should be no incomprehensible academic jargon so it’s as accessible for the reader as possible. After all, there’s no point in sending a release out if no one understands what it’s saying.
Further to this, the right journalists need to receive the press release. It sounds simple but properly researching reporters and editors to find out what they’re interested in, plus what they are writing about at the time, is key to getting the release covered in the media. Also, by avoiding sending journalists press releases that are irrelevant to them and potentially getting blacklisted, PR efforts won’t be damaged by sending an irritatingly inappropriate release to valuable outlets. Through effective targeting, press releases are much more likely to be picked up for more information or to be published in full. Chances are increased even further by grabbing the journalist’s eye, to get them to actually open the email in the first place, by using an impactful headline. The headline is often the subject line of the email, so it needs to be good. The risk is that if it doesn’t catch their eye, they’ll be more likely to delete it straightaway without ever reading the release – but when it’s done right, the results can be astounding.
When our client Imperial College Business School started offering hologram lectures to their students, a first for any major institution, we knew it would be successful in the media. It’s new, it’s undeniably interesting and it’s perfect for any journalists interested in the advancement of education technology. A single well-crafted press release, that was handed out at an event on campus and sent directly to journalists’ inboxes, ended up with over 200 hits in the media in both top tier and trade press. Big names such as the BBC, the Telegraph and the Financial Times all published large articles on the news. The institution is still known for this technological prowess. It was a huge success. It’s a solid reputation like this that draws high quality students, faculty and corporate partnerships.
Effective ghost-writing is considered crucial in business education PR. Making academic writing accessible for a more general readership is a large part of what we do. This is because academic writing is mainly written for an audience of other academics, so is often filled with complex, in-depth explanations with lots of what the average reader would probably consider as jargon. Academic research naturally targets a group of people who already have a good understanding of the topic, so they understand specialist terms, and the writing style itself doesn’t necessarily have to generate interest because its target audience is already engaged. It’s perfect within academic circles but, unfortunately, it’s not very effective for the wider media.
When you consider that, in addition to this, ghost writing can be the most straight forward choice when a global language such as English is not an academic’s first language, then it’s easy to see why it would be written for the their approval.
When ghost writing based on a piece of business school research, it’s usually for a specific purpose. For instance, it will be used for website content or an opinion article secured in an identified media outlet. The first thing to have in mind is that it’s got to fit the style of the publication. Checking to see if there’s a style guide and following that is the ideal way to begin. This will include outlines such as whether to write in American English or British English and how to format the piece with subheadings and hyperlinks.
Beyond this point, it’s key to remember that ghost written pieces must ‘sound’ like the individual academic, so reading their previous work and, in most cases, setting-up a call to get an idea of the way they talk and their mannerisms can be really helpful. The key part of ghost-writing is making sure to get the core point of the research across in a clear, concise and accessible way. Yet there’s a fine line between making a study accessible for the average reader and being patronising. For instance, the readership of the Financial Times or The Economist are educated professionals who like to engage with stories that flow with ease but make them think, whether that’s a piece based on management practice, gender equality in the workplace or any other findings from a business school.
“I have worked with BlueSky for roughly two years […]. Based on my experience I am convinced BlueSky have great skill in helping academic researchers to disseminate academic work by ghost-writing articles for a range of audiences, and seeking press opportunities. They wrote those articles on my behalf, fully understood my research and perspectives and have helped rephrase my research points in plain language. Their work is high quality and, as a non-native speaker, I really appreciate the help as I cannot do this efficiently on my own.” – LSE
It’s not hard to imagine why storytelling is considered to be a key skill for any PR professional, but it’s especially important for those working in business education. Many business schools often struggle to spin an enchanting tale that’s hidden in dry academic material and hundreds of students’ voices. Yet in order to engage with an audience, PRs need to tell a story, a story that educates and entertains whilst properly positioning an institution in line with its strategic goals. After all, media coverage that connects most intensely with readers usually has some form of human-interest aspect to it, as well as a unique and newsworthy angle, which naturally appeals and intrigues.
Alumni and student stories typically encapsulate perfect examples of storytelling. They are perhaps the best way prospective students can get a feel for what a business school is really like – through reading the stories from those who have actually walked that path, inspiring potential applicants with their experiences and achievements since graduation.
It’s why these personal tales are such a great tool for PR professionals to showcase business school success stories. Real-life successes explain the realities of business school life from a third-party source in an interesting and endorsing way. When read in respected media, from national newspapers to education-specific outlets, it only serves to further bolster a business school’s credibility and attractiveness.
Faculty research is a core way to promote an academic institution because it offers new, impactful, and interesting angles for the media. Research papers are often diverse – even those from a single business school faculty – and they have brand new findings to offer society in order to improve. The topics are likely to be thought-provoking and provide a good way to show how a school differs from others, positioning the institution as cutting-edge, a leader in certain fields. It gives visibility to the expertise that the faculty can offer to potential students, demonstrates to prospective corporate partners why they might want to work with a school, and positions the brand in top tier outlets and trade press – a beneficial result indeed.
Brilliant research findings offer some of the best material for business education PR. For instance, a press release that revealed a UCL School of Management academic’s findings that handsome men don’t always get hired went viral, research by the University of Cologne showing that men expect to earn eight years after graduation almost what women expect to earn in their entire career hit the headlines. And an academic from the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University delving deeper into why female managers are in short supply was interviewed for radio and newspapers around the world. It’s easy to see why research topics like these catch the attention of a journalist.
Pitching to journalists with a good success rate is an important part of business education PR, but these days a journalist’s inbox is filled with pitches – some have tens of thousands of unread emails – so it can be understandably hard to get their attention. As a result, every pitch must be newsworthy, otherwise it’s simply wasting the journalist’s time, but the first thing to ensure is that the emailed pitch actually gets opened.
Similar to sending a press release out, the subject line is effectively the headline so it’s key for catching attention. The subject line of the email wholly determines whether or not the journalist will actually open the email (unless good relationships with certain journalists mean they open it based on the sender). It needs to be catchy as well as relevant to the content of the email. This will determine a) whether the journalist or editor reads it and b) if they want to take up the story. Journalists are generally busy, pressured individuals who are working to a deadline so if something doesn’t grab them right away and keep them hooked, then it’s unlikely that they will respond at all.
With the subject line and pitch crafted to perfection, it’s also vital that the message goes to the relevant publication at the right time. A brilliant pitch sent to the wrong person won’t get anywhere. For instance, a pitch about the current political situation’s effect on the economy, sent by a business education PR professional, won’t be relevant for a health and beauty publication. This is where consistent background research plays an important role. Targeting relevant publications and journalists to ensure content is sent to the right people helps create the maximum chance of it being published.
“I worked with BlueSky when I was at QS TopMBA.com and they were always excellent to work with. They made my job easy as they were always sending me ideas and authors for articles. Through our work together the TopMBA.com network grew massively to include business school deans, notable graduates and current students that would have otherwise remained an untapped resource.!”
– Mike Grill, former QS SEO, Content and Community Outreach Executive
Maintaining excellent working relationships with key journalists is vital for business education PR. Ultimately, effective PR professionals are expected to provide both quantity and quality coverage. The best results come from working with journalists to produce interesting and accurate stories that feature business schools in a positive light, from cutting-edge research findings to newsworthy faculty comment. While it’s a two-way relationship (journalists need content that communications professionals can provide, and PRs need reporters to use the material they offer to get exposure for their business school), it’s a valued skill being able to have journalists coming back time and time again to the same PR person.
This is why the way journalists are engaged with is so important. Being consistently clear and concise, engaging and accurate, and providing relevant content, means that PR professionals in business education can build up relationships with key journalists and become the go-to source of spokespeople, research and input. These relationships can help ensure more regular coverage in top tier target outlets such as the Financial Times, the Economist, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal.
“BlueSky contacted me about a year ago offering to arrange interviews for my BBC column. Since then, they have proved invaluable, offering insight and ideas, with a great understanding of what journalists need from sources. BlueSky are professional, extremely organised, and among the best PR people I’ve worked with in 20 years in journalism.” - Eric Barton, Freelance Journalist (BBC)
What’s more, by knowing the business school market inside and out as well as what stories interest the media, successfully approaching journalists is much easier when it’s simple to identify stories about a school that make it new or different.
“BlueSky has been a true partner for Nyenrode, ensuring that the right opportunities are utilized at the right time. Moreover, their support has impacted Nyenrode’s initiatives across different regions, themes and programs. Their proactiveness has ensured visibility across some of the most relevant business education channels.” – Nyenrode Business University
An essential point. To truly cement good relationships with reporters, PR professionals must meet their deadlines. This is an important rule to live by in PR. Doing everything else right but missing the deadline usually results in no coverage and a rather unhappy journalist.
Human nature means that people will often remember a negative situation. Consistently missing deadlines gives PR people – and, by extension, the business school they represent – a bad image which can be hard to shake. For this reason, when looking for interviews or commissioning articles perhaps, journalists and editors could avoid those on their blacklist, severing a business school’s opportunities with this publication. Keeping to deadlines – and being honest, apologetic and trying to find an alternative if it’s going to be missed – will preserve those treasured relationships with journalists and editors.
It’s been argued that a key reason why international press coverage is such an important part of business education PR is because it’s used to reach new markets for student recruitment. One way this is achieved is by arranging media interviews for travelling faculty. Many academics will travel throughout the year, so setting aside half an hour in their busy schedule to meet a journalist could result in excellent coverage for both the academic and the school. Not only could they inspire readers with their research, but they could discuss the teaching and trips that make their business school attractive to potential students in the region. Meetings like this are also a way to develop a new relationship with a useful journalist to be contacted again in the future.
These types of relationship-building meetings and interviews for academics take place in areas all around the world, including China, Spain and the US, set up by PR professionals who organise and support faculty in their interviews abroad.
A great example of this is an academic called Professor Karl Moore from the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Canada who headed a student trip to Mongolia. The trip was designed to show students how small businesses thrived in an emerging economy. While he was out there, he met up with a journalist which generated some excellent content about their visit and influenced the first ever Mongolian student to apply to the faculty.
“I wanted to send you my warm thanks for all you have done for the Dean’s trip to Asia and to pass along his gratitude too. We met our deadlines, and I wanted to say how grateful we are for the opportunities you have created. We could not dream of securing such coverage in South America without your help (and that is true in many of the other countries in which you are supporting us). This sort of coverage is invaluable in demonstrating your impact”.
- Clare Fisher, Head of Public Relations at Said Business School at the University of Oxford
Events at business schools are effective ways to promote new campuses, centres or research, and to generate conversation about a particular topic. These events can be both supported and boosted by PR in multiple ways. Often, it’s by drafting well-worded invitations to attend and sending them out to relevant journalists with a personal touch. The more journalists that are at the event, the more likely there’ll be media coverage of it, but every invite that’s sent should be personalised for the recipient by showing an understanding of why they’d be interested in attending.
Events are also a good opportunity to directly hand to reporters and editors materials that you’d like them to take notice of, such as press releases to write about or new books to review, or to organise face-to-face interviews with academics or key members of faculty on the day. This could result in impactful media coverage simply from the journalist attending an event or private conversation with a spokesperson from the business school. It could also be the start of a great relationship between a reporter or media and the institution, academic or PR person that leads to many fruitful press opportunities.
For many, talking to the media can be daunting, especially if they’ve never done it before. Most worry about what they’re saying as they’re “on the record” and just don’t know what to expect. That’s why media training and coaching aims to make those being interviewed feel as comfortable and prepared as they can. Often simply practising the scenario with potential questions that could be asked is a highly effective way to prepare. For many interviewees, having key points that they’d like to speak about ahead of speaking to the journalist is reassuring. It’s also good to have a response prepared for a question that they don’t feel comfortable answering. This means being able to successfully acknowledge the question and divert the answer back to information that they’d like to focus on.
Social media has become more prevalent than ever. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and more are used by journalists to not only distribute news but to also find it and, on the flip side, business education PR professionals use it to showcase coverage as well as to network. Twitter and LinkedIn in particular are perfect platforms for PR professionals to find journalists as they can be engaged with directly. It allows communications teams to research them to make sure they’re the right people to pitch to but also to nurture a relationship – starting with connecting with their content – which could lead to them reaching out and contacting PRs themselves, or responding to emails and pitches because they recognise names. It’s little tricks and tactics like this that really give business education PRs the edge.
“We have been working in collaboration with BlueSky since January and the words that come to me are: responsiveness, efficiency, pleasant, always available, attentive and rigorous.”
– NEOMA Business School