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Tough PR lessons for education sector

Academic institutions are one of the toughest environments for communicating.

Most academic PR challenges are effectively internal issues exposed to the general public. They arise because there is a wide variety of strongly held opinions among the audience groups, a passionate diversity of opinion about educational purpose, and a hierarchy with only nominal control.

All these factors are behind the communication management problems exposed when Hamilton’s Fraser High School faced a student walkout, students complained about actions of the Otago University Proctor, and a movement rose against the name University of Wellington.

The common theme was that disagreement between internal audiences was exposed to public scrutiny, and adequate response to the exposure was held back by a wide variety of motivations.

The difficulty of nailing down support within your own organisation is what makes it so tough for academic institutions to respond to issues once they’re out in the wild.

This occurred when Massey University prevented Don Brash speaking. Once the ban, and the internal discussions behind it, went into the public, the dispute intensified among the University’s own audiences.

The Victoria University plan to change its name escalated when one side felt it needed to use the power of publicity to support its objectives. Effectively, this was an internal communications issue.

Otago University Proctor Dave Scott had the backing of the University when complaints were raised that he’d entered a student flat to confiscate a bong. But when the issue went national, they backed down, forcing him to front at a press conference and own the mistake.

The lesson for academic organisations in these examples is to work extra hard on internal communications, because there is no homogenous audience to use as a guide to your position if issues go public.

Fraser High School probably had a focus on its customers when the Principal’s speech on truancy resulted in a student walk out that went public, and some parent complaints.

Assuming the message was on target for most current and prospective parents, the Board was smart to swing in behind the Principal, stating the message worked “even if just one student reconsiders the path they are taking and takes steps in a more positive direction.”

Academic disputes in public are particularly messy, and no one really wins. Your best chance is to filter the noise, work out what your desired reputation dictates you do and say, and what your highest priority audience – the customer essential to your survival – most needs to hear.

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