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A New Role for PR in Higher Education

February 26, 2010

I recently listened to a panel discussion on blogtalkradio titled, FIR #17: Structuring Communications Functions, hosted by Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz. The panel included Deirdre Breckenridge, Beth Harte, Mitch Joel, Valeria Maltoni, and Bill Sledzik.

It was an interesting discussion that focused on the relationship of marketing and public relations. Given the importance of a brand’s conversation with its consumers in social media, Beth Harte made the case that PR should now be part of an integrated marketing program.

The discussion stirred my thinking further on the evolving role of public relations, and a new role for PR in higher education: the strategic integration of public relations across campus.

While this may not sound new at all to higher education where decentralization is the norm, a shift in the emphasis of public relations is broadening what strategic integration of public relations should look like.

Deirdre Breckenridge’s latest book (co-authored with Brian Solis) has a title that sums it up well: Putting the Public Back Into Public Relations. PR, as Beth Harte defines it, is now all about “people relations.”

Of course, social media is the game changer, and the corporate side is leading the way. Based on a Forrester Research report, The Future of the Social Web, Jeremiah Owyang’s three recommendations for marketing leaders advised corporations months ago to create community manager positions in response to the impact of social media and technology-empowered consumers.

Higher education has received kudos for being ahead of the curve in the adoption of social media. But a measure of that “progress” has been because colleges and universities already have community managers in place (think alumni relations, student life, schools, etc.) who have moved forward with social media with little to no input from centralized marketing and public relations.

While this has been happening, centralized PR at many institutions still largely means press release, and public relations is still synonymous for traditional media relations. This even though Humpty Dumpty has fallen and will never be put back together again with the failing of the newspaper industry–which has been axing education desks as one cost-cutting strategy–resulting in decreasing coverage and diminishing impact.

While higher education PR should still be responsible for traditional media relations, etc., a new role has emerged to influence institutional community managers by strategically integrating “people relations” across the campus, creating dotted-line relationships with community managers performing PR functions for their university.

If I were a marketing and public relations leader at a college or university, I’d want my PR team working with units across the institution to equip, train, and monitor their social media involvement. I’d want our PR colleagues in the units to understand that social media shouldn’t just be about broadcasting news, it should also be about listening and developing a conversation–which I would want to hear about. Finally, I’d want the brand’s key message points kept in mind by all units.

What’s at stake? Mark Neustadt in a blog post titled, The Time to Act on Social Media is Now, describes his experience with a focus group member whose college search was impacted by negative comments in social media. The post makes an effective case that colleges should start paying closer attention to the conversations going on about them in social media.

Doing so effectively will require a new type of strategic integration of public relations across the campus, equipping not only community managers, but also an institution’s brand advocates.

It’s a new role for higher education PR. It will require buy-in and consequently strong and collaborative marketing and public relations leadership to make it happen. But it’s an important next step for the higher education public relations profession.
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