Communications directors: How to influence discussions on distinctiveness

A solid evidence-base is key. Perceptions research with 360 degree constituencies, that both identifies the current state of play and tests out potential positioning, is the first step.


Contributed by Justin Shaw, November 2011.

For me, the only unarguably distinctive universities in the UK are those that have actually selected a distinctive market and positioned all that they do in order to 'capture' that market. My list includes: Birkbeck (part-time evening-based higher education), Cranfield (entirely postgraduate) and, of course (for obvious reasons), the Open University.

Other universities have, over the years, picked up on an umbrella theme (such as "enterprise" or "employer engagement" or "applied learning") but these have generally been cosmetic approaches rather than all-encompassing strategic intentions.

However, in today’s more competitive conditions (driven by higher fees) I've noticed that many more institutions are hotly debating the need to devote their energies to parts of their portfolio that are their true strengths, or where there is an emerging social and/or economic opportunity. I'm very interested in the University of Northampton’s "social enterprise" positioning. They launched their new strategy at the House of Lords in June 2011 with the message: "we want our students and graduates to be socially enterprising, continually looking for ways in which both they and their employers can contribute to a better society."

Both in my in-house university communications experience and as a consultant, I have heard repeated debates about how to make an institution stand out from the crowd, what to emphasise and whether stressing one particular aspect was a highly risky (and in internal politics, dangerous) approach. So what do communications leaders do to help this process along?

Some positioning concepts have clearly been developed on a whim or through superficial approaches. The key for me is in undertaking perceptions research with 360 degree constituencies, that both identifies the current state of play - with regard to knowledge, awareness and reputation issues - and tests out potential positioning. Having undertaken this kind of work for many universities, I've found that having this kind of evidence-base is vital for getting the attention of the Vice-Chancellor's office (and the board) and for influencing discussions on distinctiveness and future direction.

The time is right for communications directors to take the lead in driving the need for distinctiveness - and my advice is: use evidence to establish your leadership role.

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Justin Shaw is the Education Practice Director at Communications Management PR. He has worked with more than 130 education clients (including more than half of the UK’s universities).

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Topics: Communicating your distinctiveness.