Its not just students who need to recognise what social media can offer their personal research and researcher development startegies, HEIs also need to look at what integrating social media into institutional strategies can do for their institutions. Today Tracy Playle discusses the origins behind her site HE Comms. HE Comms is the social network for communications and marketing professionals working in and with the Higher Education sector. Follow the site on twitter.
There’s no doubt about it, the demands and pressures on universities, research organisations, research teams and individual academics to communicate effectively and innovatively continue to grow. We have to:
- justify ongoing investment in research;
- persuade prospective students to invest in their education;
- find new ways to ensure and measure impact of our research;
- justify the very existence of universities at all.
And we do all of this amidst a communications revolution. This prompted me a few years ago to dedicate my professional life to helping the sector get creative and get serious about effective communications.
I started working in HE as part of the University of Warwick’s Communications Office more by accident than design. In 2005 I became Head of an award-winning service called Research-TV. Part of the University of Warwick’s Communication Office, we also worked on behalf of a number of universities to raise the profile of research activities internationally through broadcast PR: the production and distribution of video news releases. Then YouTube, iTunes and Facebook came along and opened new opportunities to us. At the same time Warwick was busy building and launching it’s own blogging platform (blogs.warwick.ac.uk) and giving everyone within the University an opportunity to publish their own content on a university-hosted space. This proliferation of exciting new communications activities, and decentralisation of communications, was unprecedented in a UK university. I had the pure good fortune to be working amongst those innovating in this space.
In 2007, encouraged by this, I set up my own company in a bid to help the rest of the sector innovate in their communications activities. It was a slow start. Most universities weren’t yet taking ‘new media’ seriously, and the majority were simply scared of it.
I took with me a few key lessons from my time working within a university, and particularly at Research-TV, about the HE sector:
- They are constantly bombarded with ‘pitches’ from marketing and PR consultancies. They hate this.
- They are an inspiration in the way in which competing organisations collaborate and share best practice.
- Mar-comms professionals are time and resource poor (at Research-TV I learned that very few university PR offices have the budgets to engage in the level of broadcast PR activity that is needed to make a difference to their international reputation).
- I am a terrible, terrible sales person and break out in a cold sweat at the remotest prospect of having to cold-call someone.
So I had to find a different way to reach out to the sector and the only way to do that was to be useful: to ‘show’ not ‘tell’, to ‘engage’ not ‘sell’.
Friendly supporters in the sector believed in me. They gave me speaking slots at conferences. I found out that I was good at this (and enjoyed it), and the requests to do more rolled in. Interest in new and social media grew and the focus of my work shifted to exactly where I thought it ought to be: developing strategic thinking and supporting the sector to think strategically about using new media for communications and engagement activities. My passion became my job.
Starting up my own company also meant I had to manage my own training and development needs. I have to stay current but I can’t afford to attend training courses and conferences. Social media (and a thirst for knowledge) provided an answer: Twitter, LinkedIn and Quora. These aren’t just spaces for me to share with the sector, and to show my alleged ‘expertise’ in my field, but they’re spaces in which I learn and absorb from leading-edge communicators around the world. I work in education because I love education. My measure of success is not how much I earn but how much I learn. Social media enables me to do that and to truly put the ‘continuous’ in my own CPD.
And so I wanted to support other professionals to experience true continuous professional development. So I created HE Comms (www.he-comms.com), a free online community for anyone working in HE marketing and communications to network, share and discuss issues relevant to them and the sector. We now have over 700 members and while the community don’t contribute quite as much as I would like just yet, it will get there as confidence grows in using online networking tools.
The sector has many hurdles to overcome to really approach communications and engagement differently, but here are some of the most fundamental:
- We need to stop thinking so much about what we as organisations want to say about ourselves and start thinking about what we can say to make ourselves ‘useful’ and ‘valuable’ to our audiences.
- We need to invest time and resource into communications. Our communications professionals and academics will never be able to innovate in the ways in which they communicate unless they have the support, time and space for creative thinking.
- Communications professionals in universities need to have the confidence and trust of their colleagues to be able to advise and act as internal consultants. The earlier they are involved, the more effective they will be. Communications is a profession, and yet often within universities it is treated as functional, not strategic.
- We need to stop trying to be everything to everybody, and stop thinking about engagement with the ‘general public’ but instead define and segment our audiences further. The digital world demands it.
Universities are in the business of innovation. I truly believe it’s time we were also in the business of innovative communications. I know I can help the sector achieve this, but it also has to do a lot more itself to embrace this and make it effective.