Group Gordon’s Hillary Wasserman finds valuable lessons higher education communications can learn from corporate PR.
Colleges and universities have unique communications needs and a myriad of opportunities for brand- and reputation-building. Higher education communications is distinct from nonprofit communications and can benefit from an approach that takes inspiration from corporate communications. There are three lessons that higher education communications can learn from a corporate PR approach:
From Boeing to Robinhood, it seems a new corporate public relations crisis splashes across headlines every day. These crises are make-or-break moments for brands, and the best time to address a crisis is long before it starts. Corporate communicators invest significant time and resources into crisis planning, which can include everything from identifying a litany of potential problems to running through and role-playing crisis scenarios.
Higher education communications can benefit from similar investment in crisis planning to handle both the mundane and complex issues that arise for colleges and universities. Higher education institutions are famously bureaucratic and can often be quite siloed; in a crisis, time is of the essence. Comprehensive crisis planning can break down these barriers well in advance and provide a roadmap to move effectively through a fast-paced situation. In an industry where reputation is everything, the right response to a crisis can make all the difference.
PR departments for most businesses and even other nonprofits often work with a small bench of spokespeople who are meticulously trained to speak publicly about their organization. Higher education communications is unique because of the wealth of spokespeople at communicators’ disposal. There could be hundreds of potential spokespeople at colleges and universities. This includes leadership – such as the president, the provost, and deans as the most obvious choices – but any faculty member is a spokesperson when presenting research at a conference or participating in media interviews.
Just like any corporate PR leader would do with their speaker bench, equip your faculty and leadership with an elevator pitch that defines the institution in just a few sentences and answers big questions. What does your school do better than anyone else? How are you a leader in the field? What is your impact on the world? Train them to refer to this messaging in all media conversations and other public-facing speaking engagements.
B2C and B2B corporate communicators know exactly whom they are trying to reach and the precise action they would like their audiences to take. There are typically a few priority groups they are trying to reach. For example, a legal marketer might build a strategy to get in front of prospective clients, while a PR director at a startup may focus on catching the eye of potential investors or users of their product.
In higher education communications, the list of audiences to reach is long, including prospective students, current students, alumni, donors, faculty, staff, peer institutions, and rankings committees. While there may be a wide array of audiences, it’s worth the time and effort to craft a strategy that engages with each one appropriately and uses the most effective delivery vehicle. Current students may be more invested in regular updates about social justice efforts on campus that donors may be less engaged with; updates about online course delivery technology are critical for faculty but not necessary for alumni. Staff may not be influenced by coverage of the school in a top-tier media outlet, but leaders at peer institutions will be.
When higher education communications professionals apply lessons from corporate PR, they can more strategically handle any crisis, utilize their spokespeople effectively, and engage their key audiences meaningfully.