Apr 18, 2024 - Business

Higher ed hires up on strategic communications support

Illustration of three exclamation points formed from Greek columns.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

American universities and colleges are beefing up their strategic communications efforts given the onslaught of public backlash and political scrutiny that shows no signs of tapering off.

Why it matters: Higher ed is the latest industry to learn the hard lessons about crisis communications and how no institution is immune from big, divisive issues.

State of play: Academic institutions are in the political crosshairs on issues like diversity, equity and inclusion programs, student loan debt and the high cost of admission, free speech and campus safety.

In response, the most visible officials from public and private institutions — like those from Columbia University testifying before Congress on Wednesday — are rethinking their stakeholder map given their PR vulnerabilities.

  • According to Axios sources, several prominent institutions have reconfigured their communications teams to include dedicated issues management, policy and crisis communicators, or have upped guidance from outside advisors.
  • Plus, public affairs and communication advisory firms are capitalizing on this demand by launching dedicated higher education practices.

By the numbers: Academia has been under heightened media scrutiny for the past decade, with negative media coverage increasing 1,200% since 2014, according to a study by public relations firm Marathon Strategies.

  • Yes, but: Higher ed's response to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas was the tipping point.
  • Negative sentiment surrounding the media coverage of colleges and universities more than doubled, from 15% to 37% in the days following.
  • And social media criticism of campus activities and universities' responses increased by 2,600%, according to data from Brandwatch Consumer Research.

What they're saying: Because of the scrutiny, universities should rethink their communication approach, Marathon Strategies founder Phil Singer told Axios.

  • "In some respects, there's always been a little bit of an ivory tower approach to press relations," said Singer. "And there may be some very good reasons for not speaking up, but I think the level of criticism has gotten to the point where there needs to be some sort of response. The no-comment approach isn't going to work— it's become obsolete."

Between the lines: Managing the press is just one small piece of higher ed's communications conundrum. Many university leaders are grappling with how to best identify, target and reach their vast — and often vocal— stakeholders.

  • "Colleges and universities are very decentralized, with many individuals who operate with a great deal of autonomy, which means you're inevitably going to be playing defense 80-90% of the time," said one longtime higher education communications executive.

Reality check: Groups within any given university are varied.

  • Undergraduate freshmen are different stakeholders than graduate students, law students and medical students. University alumni, donors or college sports fans might have different needs and expectations than patients at university health care institutions, legislators and community members.
  • "Higher ed institutions are recognizing that all of these stakeholders are not monolithic and to effectively communicate with the various audiences, you must be able to segment, identify and target them with messaging that will resonate," the communications executive said.
  • "For example, Harvard's stakeholder map and communication needs are much different than that of say, Missouri Southern State University."

The bottom line: Tackling a crisis can be like blotting out the sun, and universities need to enlist more sophisticated communication operations to ensure they aren't making a crisis worse.

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