As I was getting ready to work on the second installment for this topic, I stumbled on “Harvard Professors’ Consulting Firm Helped Qaddafi Polish His Image”. Go figure! But let’s not get distracted by this disturbing yet unsurprising story. It is really more about greedy and unethical PR practices and not about the communication know-how of universities.
Indeed, we should first agree that the ultimate goal of an enhanced university communication strategy is to inform, to shape public perception and to build trust, all within the integrity criteria adopted by, and generally practiced within, the realm of academia.
In my previous post I singled out five main reasons behind the universities’ failure to communicate in the context of traditional 20th-century media. I argue here that citizen journalism, empowered by social media technology, allows universities to overcome every one of these shortcomings. In a future post, I shall describe how the advent of citizen journalism creates a context where universities can actually lead, even dominate a medium from which they have been absent.
- The new social media is perfectly designed for the university structure. Focus is no more the name of the game in the new media age. It is now about the preponderance of content and a deluge of information, with the hope that some of it will stick. Audiences are not interested in just reading, listening and watching focused messages. They want to participate, comment, reproduce and enhance the message. This is almost a scholarly activity that audiences want to be part of. Gone are the days where the “ultimate message” is centrally conceived, chosen, and paid for.
- Universities by their very nature are decentralized, with hardly any command and control on their intellectual production. This is the very strength of a university – robust dialogue is encouraged and a diversity of opinion the norm. Is it any wonder that universities are portrayed in the media as being scattered, mixed-up, or not focused on socio-economic outputs? A unique feature of universities is that they welcome and encourage debate and opposing points of view – the very thing that distinguishes new media from traditional ones. Instead of letters to the editor, social media welcomes its audience to discuss issues as equals.
- For obvious reasons, the expressed opinions of rank-and-file scholars are not considered to be representative of the official university line. They are therefore freer than senior administrators to delve in controversial issues. The new media empowers them with the means to do so, with enriching consequences. They are then able to provide thoughtful analysis on every issue under the sun and advocate for the university.
- Social media is cheap and accessible to every individual. Universities can now count on the intellectual resources of thousands of scholars to provide content and expert analysis. They will all be capable to disseminate more diverse and news-worthy material than any professional media is able to collect and afford. They are also in a position to give real insights, deep analysis, and serious expertise.
- The new media will rid the universities of the old mindset against active PR policy. Actually, one would expect that scholars would cherish jumping into the fierce competition for audience and credibility, between citizenship journalism, unfettered by corporate agendas and dependence on advertising dollars, and mainstream media institutions.
Unhindered by traditional publishing constraints, every one of the university’s constituents will be advertising what he/she believes is the right “noble” message of education and discovery. Real advances and successes of scholars and researchers will be announced by scholars and researchers as news — not as propaganda. Communicating one’s expert opinion, based on years of scholarly activity, cannot be seen as something that cheapens the noble aims of education.
In my next post, I will describe why I believe universities are well positioned to lead, and how they can do it.