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Higher Education PR: Why Colleges & Universities Need Strategic Communications

By Taryn Schofield

Almost any business or institution benefits from a comprehensive strategic communications program, and institutions of higher education are no different. No matter a school’s classification as a college or university, its size, specialty areas or enrollment numbers, higher education PR can be a critical part of maintaining and building reputations among stakeholders, attracting new students, highlighting key initiatives, and managing messaging around unforeseen or sensitive situations.  

Every college, university and specialty school should be thinking about how it can leverage higher education PR and media relation efforts and dedicating time, funding and resources into formulating and implementing a full-scale communications strategy for both external and internal messaging.  

Here are just some of the ways higher education PR can benefit colleges and universities.  

Connecting with Key Stakeholders 

For colleges and universities, appearing connected to and invested in the neighborhoods you reside in is a crucial part of securing funding, fostering community support and fast-tracking processes for renovation and expansion. This is where higher education PR and public affairs can be leveraged to help institutions gain exposure to key stakeholders and municipalities through earned and owned media, which eventually help them form positive relationships that will go a long way in achieving key initiatives for the school.  

Higher education PR can also help colleges and universities stay more present and connected to community members in the areas around a campus or facility. Highlighting any local initiatives and positive impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods can go a long way in maintaining municipal support and the procurement of fundings for new programs, research, or scholarships.  

Establishing thought leadership and expertise 

Higher education institutions are often revered as sources of credibility and expertise on various subjects and dense issues covered in national and local dialogue and media. This sense of reverence is something that can attract quality students and higher caliber faculty. However, with so many colleges and universities vying for a seat at the table, it can be hard to get your experts out there and established as trusted sources of information.  

This is where higher education PR can be effective. Through a comprehensive strategic sourcing program, faculty experts and affiliated centers and programs can be established as thought leaders and go-to sources on specific topics and subject matter. Having representatives from a college or university quoted and attributed in earned media as experts fortifies a school’s authority in specific areas and contributes to important brand awareness efforts that attract more applicants and potential faculty.  

Launching new schools, campuses and programs 

For any college or university, there will come a time for expansion, and higher education PR will be key in spreading the good news to your preferred audiences. Whether it be launching a new school with new programs in specific areas of study or physically expanding a campus (whether in the same primary location or in a new neighborhood or community), it will be important to message these changes appropriately.  

For a program or course expansion, its critical to make prospective students aware of these newly available study options, when they can begin applying to them, their prerequisite requirements and any validators that ensure their education in these areas will be top tier. If a school is launching a unique or hard-to-come-by program, like, for example, an MS in cannabis business, there may be further opportunities to tell a larger story about why the decision was made to invest in launching a program and how the school has gone about designing coursework or hiring faculty.  

When a school adds a new campus or expands an existing location, higher education PR can be effective in showcasing the school to the community, highlighting what impact its presence will have and how an expansion of campus can benefit the neighborhood. This can be done through thought leadership, local storytelling and larger picture storytelling (depending on the details). When a college or university begins to establish a physical presence in an area, higher education PR strategies are key to connecting with stakeholders and portraying core messages to community leaders and figureheads.  

Furthering recruitment and retention rates 

Maintaining and advancing recruitment and retention rates is the bread and butter for any college or university. These data sets are what bring schools the extra credibility they need to attract new students and are the gateways to rationalizing additional investment and expansion efforts.  

Ultimately, the culmination of a higher education PR strategy can result in the boosting of these rates, whether that is the primary goal or not. However, a communications strategy can be tailored with elevating these rates in mind. Earned media helps elevate brand awareness, coursework and degree value and inroads a higher education institution is making into specific fields, all of which contributes to college rankings and the visibility of the school to prospective students.  

Crisis management 

Whether a community college or a large private or state university, higher education institutions encompass a lot of moving parts, conflicting interests and differing variables. This is why college and universities can often deal with a lot of crisis situations that need to be messaged and addressed appropriately with their internal and external audiences.  

Having a team familiar with higher education PR can help streamline these efforts if a crisis occurs. They can assist with drafting statements, providing a response strategy and managing media inquiries in tandem with a school’s internal communications team. Higher education PR professionals will also be able to anticipate potential crises or issues and provide recommendations for avoiding them or mitigating them effectively.  

Colleges and universities play a significant role in shaping so many facets of our society, from research, to policy, to the workforce, to local communities. Having a thorough and comprehensive higher education PR strategy can strengthen this role to maximize an institution’s impact in the above ways and more. Any school serious about reaching its goals should consider incorporating higher education PR and earned media into its larger strategy if it is serious about being successful and of best service to its students, faculty and stakeholders.  

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