University public relations – achieving global impact

By Claire Whitelaw, deputy director of marketing and communications, Durham University,

Working in University PR is possibly the most interesting and varied job in the industry. We’re managing engagement with partners, journalists and interested parties from around the globe on fascinating campaigns and stories that consistently grab headlines and public attention.

Durham University, my employer and a world top 100 university, aims to have a positive impact regionally, nationally and internationally in keeping with our institutional values and reflected in our strategy.

However, a changing marketing and communications landscape and the need for universities to stand out in a competitive higher education market brings new challenges and opportunities for engaging with our global stakeholders.

Like many PR teams, in recent years we’ve successfully moved from a ‘media first’ approach to one that puts digital media as central to reaching our target audiences – our students, our graduates, the global academic and business community, along with policy makers, opinion formers and influencers.

It’s required a shift in approach and mindset for everyone. It’s not about selecting the most newsworthy stories but drawing out angles that show how Durham is making a tangible difference across the globe and telling stories in consistent but compelling ways across a number of channels.

Part of this has involved refocusing and upskilling the team through training and coaching, but also educating the clients who still ask for a ‘press release’ and see media success alone as evidence of a job well done.

Our campaigns

Broadly, our campaigns fall into two key categories – those relating to our students and those relating to our research.

With our students, Durham’s core goal is to develop – through our education and student experience – socially engaged global citizens. Our integrated, multi-media student recruitment campaign #DUMakeitHappen has been propelled by case studies of both students and graduates who are ‘making it happen’ through their contribution to international communities.

With our research campaigns, we reflect how Durham is tackling wide ranging and ambitious world challenges. Recent examples include:

The challenges

Digital and social media has made it so much easier to interact with international partners and opinion formers. It’s broadened our reach to unprecedented levels. Yet to do this we’ve had to reprioritise our modest budget to create better multi-media content and more of it, meaning a ‘good enough’ job with other services such as monitoring and analysis.

Durham is some distance from independent and BBC studios, and several hours from London and Manchester, the UK’s main broadcasting centres. So, we fund an in-house media suite with a globally networked camera and radio ISDN, enabling interviews with global broadcasters we would otherwise have missed. Internet broadcasting is increasingly an acceptable option so we use that when we can.

We’ve explored new channels and have become a founder member of The Conversation, a thought leadership website whose content is republished on international news sites and has a large following in the USA, a target market.

We work with our externally facing departments, especially our policy team, to map and approach stakeholders with targeted stories on the day they are released, to broaden reach with core audiences.

One of our most successful (and CIPR award winning) campaigns centres on our cosmology research. Having social media-friendly researchers considerably amplifies engagement with stories on galaxies, stars and black holes beyond University corporate channels and the media.  One of the highlights last year was a visit from the international celebrity will. i.am who took an interest in their work.

The future

There is so much more we can do to amplify our global engagement and we’re always looking for new ways of working.   Translating campaign material into foreign languages is something we’d like to test and monitor.

Claire Whitelaw MCIPR is Deputy Director of Marketing and Communications at Durham University. She spent the early part of her career in print and BBC broadcast journalism before moving into public relations for two leading universities, spending the last decade in leadership positions.

Image courtesy of Pexels

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