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I’m surprised that University public relations efforts haven’t received wider assessment, though as always of course I may have missed something. I know that many faculty roll their eyes a bit when big PR campaigns are presented, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to broader discussion. So I thought aspects of the topic might usefully be opened up.

I mean to do this carefully, with a focus on the overall patterns, not any single institutional case. Caution is warranted since I have a number of friends in the industry, and of course I may want some more PR help sometime.

Most important, I want to make it clear that university PR activities are absolutely essential, in at least four related ways. First, universities do have to develop ways to communicate to (tiresome term) stakeholders, from potential students to donors to (for the public at least) politicians. Second, there are huge needs for effective internal communication, and this requires real imaginations and professional skill. Third, there is legitimate need to seek a wider audience for certain achievements, most obviously in faculty research but in other areas as well. And fourth, when or if some disaster strikes, given the increasingly bloodthirsty media mood, professional guidance is essential.

It’s also important to note, particularly concerning needs 1 and 3, that getting the message out is probably becoming more difficult. TV stations don’t give higher ed much play, except for sports or human interest stories like having puppies in to ease student tensions at exam time. Newspapers have dramatically reduced higher ed reporting. Sheer competition among institutions in an area like Washington creates challenges as well; what media attention there is can easily be carved up into really small fragments.

Still, I do have concerns about the extent to which higher ed PR is not always carefully controlled or assessed. An annual example (which Mason thankfully decided ten years ago not to participate in, on grounds that it was folly): every year shortly before US News sends out reputational questionnaires, presidents, provosts and deans of admission (who do the reports) are bombarded by slick brochures touting this or that institution’s achievement. As far as I can tell, it’s a complete waste of time. The proliferation cancels out any single effort. I, and most of my colleagues, routinely toss the stuff away immediately (into recyclable containers, NB).

From this example, four other concerns or suggestions. First, there surely is some modest opportunity, at least at some institutions, to review PR efforts to see if a bit of money might be saved. Not necessarily a lot: my suggestion here is imprecise. But there are initiatives, like the annual brochures, that simply waste time and resources, and it’s actually amazing that the effort continues without much cost containment. And there might be other examples.

Second, we surely need to do a better job assessing the results of some major PR initiatives, again beyond the industry itself. What the industry often values, and gives prizes for, for example in the area of winning designs and national placement, does not necessarily help the institution. I know of a few campaigns, at least, that cost some money but had no apparent impact either on student applications or philanthropy; but it was never clearly evaluated in these terms, at least to my knowledge.

Third, I think we should encourage a bit more discussion about the relationship between PR conventions and the ideas of criticquiry to which our institutions are in principle devoted. We are not selling soup (though I’d be delighted to see Campbell’s promoting critical inquiry as well). Efforts to make a given university stand out as measurably unique almost always involve a level of hyperbole and simplification that makes me uncomfortable. Again, don’t get me wrong: we need to sell ourselves to some audiences. But I wonder if we can’t introduce some standards of realism and nuance that would make the whole effort more trustworthy, and possibly more effective. I am always more persuaded by arguments that acknowledge strengths in other products – this was true for me even in applying to college, where I turned down one offer in part because the institutional rep had tried to run down another school. I think it would be interesting to talk about a more fruitful relationship between some of the bigger PR efforts and academic values, without necessarily paralyzing the industry.

And fourth, I do think we need to be careful not to confuse really impressive PR with wider achievement. Big PR programs can get a lot of backing not only from the PR unit but from other top administrators who like to bask in stories of success. Nothing wrong with this up to a point. But effective PR should not be outracing basic educational, research and service accomplishments, and I do think there are cases where campaigns take on a life of their own, at some cost to strategic assessment.

Again, PR is essential. It’s not, certainly, the greatest problem area that universities face. But some new attention might be interesting at least in certain cases.