Research data is a golden opportunity for university PR teams

UK universities have this week found out how they have fared in the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a long process that has had a profound influence over every aspect of higher education for the past few years.

Use the opportunity before competitor universities do, warns Mark Fuller
Use the opportunity before competitor universities do, warns Mark Fuller
The results of the REF will not only determine the allocation of £2bn in public funding for universities each year, it will send important signals about the position each university occupies in the hierarchy of UK higher education. 

To university comms teams that think creatively and act quickly, this is a window of opportunity to shape the reputation of their institution for years to come. 

For better or worse, academic reputations are overwhelmingly influenced by research. 

The brightest students want to study under the most highly regarded Professors and earn degrees from institutions that will impress potential employers. 

The introduction of higher tuition fees and the deregulation of student places have made it more important than ever for university PR teams to carefully manage their institution’s reputation.

The glut of data released yesterday is being arranged into rankings tables by the HE sector press, but there is little consensus over the form of these rankings. 

For instance, Times Higher Education has led with a ‘grade point average’ system that doesn’t account for the comparative size of each institution, while Research Fortnight concentrate on the volume of research that has been recognised at each institution. 

The lack of a universally recognised model of success, and the ability social media provides to communicate directly with potential students, creates a rare opportunity for comms teams to shape their own narrative. 

There are some very obvious big winners – the volume of highly scored research putouts from big London hitters like King’s and UCL is hard to ignore, as is the (perhaps surprising) fact that Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are seen to have excelled on achieving real world ‘impact’ with history and English respectively. 

But in many cases university comms officers need to be a little more thoughtful about the stories they want to tell. 

The temptation will be to simply shout about how well they have done with the objective of making the maximum amount of noise. 

However, many peers and competitors are likely to take similar approaches. 

The result will be a deafening crescendo which drowns out any useful messages. 

PRs can improve the noise to signal ratio by setting some specific communications objectives for their REF related activity. 

For instance, some may want to focus on undergraduate recruitment and set a target of demonstrating how the recognition awarded to research impacts on teaching. 

Others could use the REF results as collateral for an overarching repositioning exercise, shifting HE sector perceptions about the core values of their institution. 

Or they may prioritise international considerations and use the REF results to facilitate new partnerships with overseas institutions. 

University PRs who think quickly about what data to concentrate on, how to present it and the messages they want it to signify can define identifies that marketing teams can build campaigns around in the coming months and years. 

Those that don’t will be forced to spend the same time taking on perceptions being formed without their input.

Mark Fuller is associate director at Linstock Communications

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