PR staff put the sector in a spin

20th August 2004 at 01:00
Marketing professionals are playing a vital role in raising the profile of FE colleges. Simon Midgley reports

Staff in the FE sector often bemoan the fact that their colleges'

contribution to national life is unappreciated. Most people have a good idea what schools are for, and why we need universities. But for many, the work of FE colleges remains a mystery.

In a bid to change that cloudy perception, a growing number of colleges have appointed public relations staff, press officers and marketing personnel. Today, about half of England's 400 or so colleges have someone whose job is - in part, at least - to field press enquiries.

Many of these staff are marketing professionals whose roles also involve advertising, promotions, internal communications, writing the annual prospectus and dealing with school-business liaison, so a relatively small proportion of their time would be spent on media relations.

These staff come from various backgrounds. Some have previous experience in journalism, while others have degrees in public relations or marketing. But there is no strict career pattern. Indeed, there is one London-based press officer who has a masters degree in creative writing.

Rob Mansfield, marketing officer at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college, has a degree in public relations and is part of a team of six marketing professionals. He is the team member designated to deal with the press and spends an average of one day a week doing so.

"A major part of what I do is sourcing good news stories about students and courses and giving them to journalists - mainly on local papers, but sometimes trade papers as well if that seems appropriate," he says.

Journalists often contend that the best press officers are those with journalistic backgrounds as they are more likely to spot the stories that the media can use.

But that view is by no means a universal one. Simon Higgins, director of marketing at Newcastle college, believes that whether these staff come from a press or public relations background is largely immaterial.

"I would never generalise and say that one group was better than the other," he says. "What matters is getting the right person for what you want to achieve."

Newcastle college is one of a small group of colleges that uses a local PR agency for their press relations work.

"We didn't want the fixed costs of having a PR person," says Mr Higgins.

"We also wanted the additional contacts and expertise that the agency could bring."

Two full-time agency staff work on the college's account. One has a background in journalism, the other a track record in PR. Some people in this field would argue that using an agency puts a needless barrier between the media and the college, but Mr Higgins does not subscribe to that view.

Sheffield college has its own dedicated press officer. The post is currently held by Sarah Clothier, who trained as a journalist. She has been in the position for the past five years.

Her job is to convey the college's message: "If I can, you can." She does this by placing stories about the college's high achievers in the press and other media in the hope that they will serve as role models for potential students.

"We need to get the message - that learning changes lives - out to as large an audience as possible," she says.

Carol Brett is the press and publicity manager at Wakefield college and a former journalist on the Yorkshire Post. She believes colleges need press officers, but says that in reality many cannot afford to employ them.

"In most colleges it is not a role that could be full-time, but I think each college definitely needs someone like me - somebody who can deal with the press effectively and who is trained in crisis management.

"We see media coverage as free advertising. We keep press cuttings and at the end of the year we work out what it would have cost if we had paid for that kind of coverage. It's a substantial amount.

"If something horrible happens or goes dramatically wrong, you need somebody of my calibre. You need to ensure that people don't say anything inappropriate."

Nadine Hudspeth is the marketing manager at Gateshead college and has a degree in public relations.

"A lot of my job involves training and educating academic staff to realise that what they are doing involves a lot of human interest stories that help us to promote learning," she says.

Mr Mansfield at Ealing, Hammersmith and West London college certainly believes that FE is largely unrecognised by comparison with universities and schools.

"More people study in FE colleges between the ages of 16 and 19 than study in schools," he says.

"The problem is that FE has not beaten its own drum loud enough. How we raise the profile of the sector is the million-dollar question.

"If I had an easy answer, I would be a very rich man."

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