Published on November 17, 2023, 7:56 p.m.
by Chloe Petro.
When most people think of public relations, they think of press releases, PR unboxing hauls or celebrity PR failures. While public relations encompasses those things, it also plays vital role in more industries than people realize.
One place people may not think to find public relations is in higher education, but in reality, PR is essential to the success of educational institutions everywhere. In the higher education space, PR serves as a recruitment tool for prospective students and also works to help spread awareness of the projects happening on each campus.
Social media and recruitment
In this digital age, it is more important than ever for educational institutions to have PR if they want to have a voice in the game of students choosing which schools to attend. Essentially, each college or university must become an appealing brand, enough to pique the interest of prospective students.
Think Orion’s “How to Do PR Outreach for Higher Education Institutes” blog post provides the many pros of utilizing PR as an
educational institution. One pro is that public relations “allows education establishments to increase their brand awareness, allowing the target audience to learn more about the college without having to visit in person. This aids in solidifying a higher ed institution’s image.” Think Orion also highlighted some of 2023’s most creative higher education campaigns that stood out to students and faculty.
Social media has played a large part in giving students a taste of campus without actually stepping foot on it. Dr. Matthew VanDyke, associate professor and seasoned PR practitioner from The University of Alabama’s Department of Advertising and Public Relations, said that with the world’s current media landscape, “anyone from anywhere in the world can come to [The University of Alabama] and engage with the brand that is UA as long as we create opportunities and access to do so.”
VanDyke also mentioned how social media makes it easier than ever before to establish and maintain relationships and how it is essential remain active on it. “It is a necessity [to be on social media] because that is where our audience is, especially students,” he explained. “You have to be where they are, and you have to be relevant to them.”
What kind of content does it take to reach this audience? According to a MSS Media article, using peer-to-peer marketing is key. The article noted, “Millennials and Gen Z are interested in authenticity, not salesmanship. They prefer insights from their peers, rather than paid sources.” This notion applies to every industry, not just higher education: People love authenticity.
Tenaya Goldsen and Samantha Bobal, both PR practitioners at SBS Comms and authors of “The Role of Public Relations Within the World of Higher Education,” have acquired PR experience in the higher education space but not doing recruitment
work. They have worked with prestigious universities like MIT on internal projects with an external reach.
For example, they have been working with University of California Berkeley to help spread awareness about its Citizen Clinic, which includes a broader initiative to bring cybersecurity clinics to colleges and universities all over the country.
Bobal explained how vital their role is in the financial success of these initiatives. “When it comes to funding for a lot of these schools, it’s [vital] to relay the importance of these different projects to stakeholders so that they know that these clinics are making an impact,” Bobal said. “Getting stories out there and positioning them as influential is really important because I think a lot of programs are being cut just from being underfunded.”
Goldsen added that one of her favorite parts of this unique job is making sure that the information being disseminated makes sense to the public and doesn’t include any unfamiliar jargon.
“Sometimes the spokespeople doing that research for a project are so in the weeds with it, that it can be hard to explain to a general audience what is going on,” she noted. “Our job was helping the spokespeople step back and remember why this is important and what it means for the future.”
All in all, the world is changing, which means education is too. If universities want to keep their audiences — students, alumni,
donors and other stakeholders — interested, they must stay on top of their PR strategies with engaging content, an identifiable brand and creative campaigns.
Public relations is the backbone of higher education. Even though much of the work is done behind the scenes, it truly makes these organizations stronger and allows them to grow.