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Positively spinning

It is neither compromising nor difficult to cultivate a good media image for your college. Neil Merrick advises how you should go about it

Journalists can be a real nuisance. They normally ring when you are too busy to talk to them, they mostly focus on negative stories and generally they ignore all the good news about students that staff would like people to read.

Yet the media is also impossible to ignore. Further education may still not receive as much press coverage as schools or universities, but it has a far higher profile than 10 years ago.

At the same time, a positive newspaper article can be worth thousands of glossy marketing brochures because people see it as having been written by somebody without a vested interest in promoting the college.

So how should colleges go about managing public relations and achieving the best possible media attention?

According to Linda Butler, director of communications at the Association of Colleges, most already have a good relationship with local newspapers and even radio stations, but are far less effective when it comes to regional and national media.

"This is because colleges either have a lack of experience or lack an awareness about how to build the image of FE from the bottom-up," she says. "I don't think they realise that a good story in a regional paper might be picked up nationally."

The AOC monitors newspapers throughout the country. On a typical Thursday in February, regional morning papers carried 38 stories about schools, seven about higher education and just two on FE. "There may be a structural problem in some colleges," adds Linda Butler. "The responsibility (for media relations) tends to be delegated to a fairly low level."

In the early years following incorporation, many college principals tried to deal with press enquiries themselves. Even today, it is sometimes left to the principal's secretary to take media calls and, if the principal is unavailable, pass the journalist on to another member of staff.

Some colleges now appoint a lecturer as press officer, while others leave it in the hands of marketing departments. In each case, there is a danger that the people liaising with the media do not possess a proper understanding of what makes a good story.

The AOC offers to help colleges make contact with journalists on national newspapers. "We've so many examples of good stories that go wrong because they're not handled well at local level," says Linda Butler.

Although the nationals are likey to be more interested in covering colleges with large budget deficits or scandals involving lecturers, the AOC has notched up some notable successes, including one story about elderly people who became "lifelong learners", which appeared in the Mirror.

Ken Clarke, the new chief executive of the Association of Principals of Colleges and former principal at Havering College, north-east London, believes it is important colleges have a press officer who can find out why journalists want to talk to the principal or senior managers.

These then have time to make a more considered response to a journalist's questions. "The last thing you want is to be quoted when you are in the middle of doing something else," he says.

At Havering College, Ken Clarke appointed a former lecturer as a full-time press officer. Some colleges employ former journalists or people with wider PR experience, while others employ outside specialists.

Ken Clarke does not believe that many opt for the specialist solution, mainly because of the expense. "It's always a balance between looking at the resources that you allocate to PR and what you spend on delivering the curriculum."

Linda Butler is also sceptical about whether employing PR firms is the best option. "Unless you have a company aware of FE issues that can sniff out stories, you will end up with press releases being sent out to everyone and mostly ending up in the bin," she says.

Prior to Ray Dowd's appointment as principal at Wirral last May, the college used a PR firm to send out press releases. "Papers got a message from the PR company but were sceptical of its reliability," says Ray Dowd. "They used to come back to members of staff here to test it out on them."

Publicity is now handled by an internal marketing unit. "We've worked very hard to manage the information flow much better," he explains.

But the college, which at one stage ran up debts of more than pound;12 million, has not just relied on reporters seeking out news from Wirral. Following his appointment, Ray Dowd and his chair of governors briefed journalists from local papers and radio stations so they were aware the college had a recovery plan under way.

While the words "debt-ridden" still appear before the college's name in many stories, it is not all bad news. "The press no longer only emphasise negative things. They look at what we're doing to survive," says Ray Dowd. "We get a much more positive spin on stories in local newspapers than was previously the case."

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