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When no news is bad news

If colleges want to raise their profile, management must become more media savvy, says Ruth Sparkes

Reputation has been a buzzword in further education since 2005 when Sir Andrew Foster, in his review of colleges, suggested there may be some confusion about their role. Foster's conclusion was that colleges had a good tale to tell but no one was listening. He said we should improve marketing and promotion of colleges and the achievements of learners and staff.

Some of us took this at face value and looked at what we were doing. We asked ourselves whether we could do better. The answer was - and still is - yes.

Marketing includes a whole range of activities, an important part of which involves working with the media. Getting journalists' attention has always been a bone of contention with college managers. "Why don't we get more coverage?" they ask. I've heard the media blamed for not being interested, but that's not always the case.

The surest way to avoid publicity is to be so defensive that journalists give up on you and stop getting in touch - and this happens. One national journalist told me: "You soon get to know which press officers will respond to positive story ideas and which ones are a waste of time."

To be fair, staff who appear to be unaware of the media are, in fact, very switched on - but they can be suffocated by bureaucracy.

There are a number of marketing and PR managers whose dealings with the press betray a lack of understanding of the media, what a story is and awareness of deadlines.

The ironic thing is that colleges rely for their existence on the notion that people need to be trained properly to do a job of work. If the person who acts as their contact with the media appears not to be trained for the job, yet employed by an organisation which is responsible for vocational training, that's not sending out a good message.

Colleges should make it easy for marketing staff to update their skills. The best way to improve the quality of colleges' communication with the media is to start with the principal. If the senior management team aren't committed and there's no communications strategy, the expertise of the press officer is likely to be wasted.

Some tough questions need to be asked. How much autonomy do marketing and PR staff have? Are they trusted to take the initiative or are they just conduits between journalists and managers?

It is probably true that there are few things worse than no publicity. Imagine it - no good publicity, no bad publicity, just deathly silence. Bad news often moves faster than good news because it tends to be leaked and therefore not hampered by bureaucratic processes which can kick in when a positive story is being groomed for release. Over-management of news can cause delays and obscure the message. And that's a shame because the work of colleges is a great, heroic activity and we have a lot to shout about.

Ruth Sparkes runs the Education Marketing and Public Relations Association and is PR and communications manager at Cornwall College.

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