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By Anne Nicholls, freelance PR/communications consultant specialising in education
Some professions travel better than others. Take finance. Producing balance sheets and monthly accounts doesn’t vary much, whether it’s for a school, hospital, charity or a business selling sustainable coffee cups. The skills needed migrate easily from sector to sector.
The same applies to IT specialists, electricians, plumbers and an array of other occupations. Unblocking a toilet in the Paris Ritz is essentially no different from doing the same for the public loos at Bristol Temple Meads.
But what about public relations? Are the broad communication skills that make up the toolkit of the PR professional easily transferable across different sectors? Or is there an unbridgeable gulf between, say, investor relations and being a celebrity publicist. Is there anything special about the education and skills sector?
Ben Verinder, Managing Director of PR reputation and research agency Chalkstream, argues that there is a basic PR skill set that applies across all sectors. But for education and skills organisations, stakeholder relations and reputation management skills tend to be at a particular premium, he says.
At a tactical level the basics - such as media relations, content creation, managing social media channels and event management - do not differ significantly from sector to sector. But the content does. Newbies to the world of education and skills need to understand the issues that schools, colleges, universities, training providers, awarding bodies, regulators and charities are facing. The sector is particularly sensitive to changes in the political landscape and it’s important they understand that. New Ofsted guidelines, for instance, can have far reaching implications on schools. Further education colleges are vulnerable to financial crises at the moment. And universities have to deal with sensitive issues such as diversity, widening participation and admissions policies. For people wanting to move beyond merely tactical roles, it’s not enough just to know about “the product” (the education offer). “If PR is to be seen as a strategic function people must have a grasp of the wider business skillset,” says Ben Verinder.
Luke Budka, Head of Digital PR and SEO at Topline Comms, says what sets education and skills apart from many other sectors is the diversity of its audiences. “You could be dealing with governments, education agents, local authorities, a client’s employees and students (both domestic and international) at the same time,” he says. “Considering the impact on each one of these groups and the best way to communicate with them is challenging. Putting pressure on the Department for Education, for instance, may require national press representation, whilst communicating with Generation Z could involve leveraging the latest social platforms.”
There is also diversity in the way that different organisations in the sector handle their communications. Even though the product (education) is similar, schools, colleges, universities and other organisations manage things in very different ways. Few schools (with the exception of multi-academy trusts) are likely to have a qualified PR or marketing person, says Ben Verinder. In FE colleges the emphasis is on marketing and student recruitment, although the larger colleges (particularly the recent mergers) may have a qualified PR practitioner. In universities – much larger institutions – the communication functions are likely to be split into student recruitment, marketing, branding, stakeholder engagement, research, media relations, social media and internal communications. Independent training providers tend to have a specific sales focus, so any communications support is geared to commercial outcomes.
Yet, despite the diversity of the sector, there are commonalities.”You need to develop your personas, understand their pain points, how they want to be communicated with and use that information as the foundation of your strategy,” says Luke Budka. “It doesn't matter if you're influencing 16 year old GCSE students or a 60 year-old chief executive. You need to tell an interesting story through the right channels to get traction.”
Working in PR within the education and skills sector – seven tips
These are applied to people already working in the sector as well as those planning to.
- Do your homework. You need to really understand the wider education environment and be alert to potential reputation issues. Read the education media. Check government websites. The more you know about the issues affecting an organisation the better equipped you'll be to spot that piece of government legislation that may have a fantastic or catastrophic impact.
- Prepare for the worst. The sector as a whole is very vulnerable to reputation damage, so PR specialists need to have crisis communications as part of their toolkit. This could involve dealing with negative media coverage over financial mismanagement, misuse of social media, a bad inspection report, drug issues or even a fatal stabbing.
- Make a list of stakeholders. For a further education college it could be existing students, potential students, parents, teachers, governors, community groups, local businesses, government and funding agencies. Then decide what are the most suitable communication channels to use to reach them and what messages you want them to hear.
- Be aware of sensitivities. Some academics are very nervous about talking to the media for fear of dumbing down or their research being distorted. You also need to be aware of issues about language, particularly in areas such as disability. Some school staff are suspicious of terms like ‘marketing’ or ‘public relations’ as they see them diverting attention away from their real business – teaching. Use those terms with caution or show how they can boost student recruitment.
- Identify your transferable skills. Don’t worry if you haven’t got previous experience in education. Some organisations like people who have worked in the commercial sector as they can bring in new ideas and a business-like approach.
- Show passion. You must have a real commitment for education and the values of the organisation.
- And finally … Don’t assume that education and skills is a soft option. It can be a very demanding area in which to work but also an incredibly rewarding one.
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