From education to employment

Why colleges need national coverage

A few years back, I ran a training workshop for a group of PR and marketing officers working in FE colleges on how to generate more press coverage. While most had good relationships with local and trade publications, some confessed they didn’t know where to start with the nationals.  By the end of the session, they all had a list of ideas and a much clearer idea of how to pitch them to journalists.

So I was a bit surprised when one delegate – a marketing director in a large inner-city college – approached me afterwards and said that while she had enjoyed the workshop, she couldn’t see what her institution could gain from national coverage.  While it was a nice ‘ego massage for the college,’ an article in the Daily Mirror or the Times would not help staff achieve their key objective – getting more local people to enrol on courses at the college – whereas a story in a regional would.

Since then, I’ve spoken to other college marketing professionals who don’t see the benefit either.  But while they are right to say that press coverage should never be about massaging egos, I think they are missing the point.

The first question we ask any client is: ‘what exactly do you want to achieve?’ For colleges, it is often about improving outcomes for learners. National coverage in print and broadcast media can help on a number of levels.

Providing a case study or expert for a story or writing a comment article, is an effective way of positioning your college – and its principal – as a thought leader in the sector.  It is an opportunity to influence and shape policy and, ultimately, work towards better outcomes for learners.

It can also have a powerful impact on teaching and learning. Recruiting and retaining high quality staff is an ongoing challenge for college leaders, particularly in disadvantaged or rural areas. Picture yourself as a job-hunter: what’s the first thing you’d do before applying for a new job at a college? Google it, of course. A college that attracts positive national coverage is going to seem like a far more dynamic place to build a career than one with a handful of local newspaper clippings.

And it’s not just potential employees who notice national coverage. Imagine you’re a local employer, wanting to take on apprentices. Would you rather do business with the college that gets regular local coverage or the one that does that and whose principal was interviewed on the Today programme this morning?

Put yourself in the shoes of a parent or a young person looking for a specialist vocational or degree course. Would you be more attracted to the college whose students were interviewed about their ‘A level’ results for the Guardian last week or for the regional paper?

This is not to say, of course, that local coverage is not important for colleges. It’s vital. But colleges that are committed to building reputation and strengthening their college brand should also have national print and broadcast media at the heart of their PR and marketing strategy.

If you want to influence the national conversation about further education, your college needs to have a voice, and a principal with anything about them will have strong views about at least some of the ways that policy changes affect learners. Even a small institution will have experience and expertise in areas that can inform the ways policy is shaped, so when the time is right, take the plunge and say what you think.

Tips for securing national coverage

1.     Don’t rely on press releases: national editors love exclusives; if you send a press release, they’ll assume it’s gone out to hundreds of journalists and may not be interested as a result. A tailored email explaining the story (in no more than a paragraph or two) and how and why it might work for their section is far more effective.

2.     Offer stories, not standalone case studies: journalists are generally pretty good at finding case studies themselves. What they really want is ideas for stories and with your knowledge of the sector, you’re well-placed to help them understand the big issues for the sector and the kinds of things they should be writing about.

3.     Be clear on the difference between regional and national stories – as a general rule of thumb, national stories (e.g. EMA, changes to student immigration rules) affect young people and their families beyond your college and region. So editors are unlikely to be interested in a local campaign to save a college bus route, but might be interested in national cuts to transport funding for 16-18 year olds.

Janet Murray is a journalist, editor, media consultant and trainer. She is a regular contributor to the Guardian and other national newspapers on education and skills, and runs with fellow Guardian writer Louise Tickle


Find out more about how to get national coverage at her upcoming event for Marketing/PR professionals in the FE sector: What Journalists Want: Making FE Stories Matter

Submit event information or a press release for FE News for free through FE Community. FE News is always interested in hearing from FE sector experts who are interested in becoming  feature writers. Email FE News if you have a feature idea you would like to discuss

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