Some lessons from Higher Education

Over the last couple of years I’ve worked on several contracts as an internal communicator in Higher Education (HE). Higher Education in the UK is currently a challenging environment to work in for any communicator and the sector is experiencing some seismic changes, not least a shift towards student consumerism and increased competition. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned while working as an internal communicator in HE. These might be helpful to internal communication professionals like you, even if you work in other roles and sectors.     

You’re a radical thinker, but never knew it

Before I worked in the HE sector, I’d been working for many years in internal communication roles in central government. I’ve never regarded myself as a radical thinker. However, getting what I thought were fairly low key, box standard ideas and the good internal communications strategy and practice which I had used successfully for years to take root in a new environment and sector was initially a bit of a struggle.

I think that as internal communicators we’ve probably all come up against the ‘we don’t do things like that around here’ response when proposing new ways of doing things. It’s important not to be discouraged by this and remember that your bright ideas can initially be regarded as ‘radical thinking’ and totally unachievable by colleagues used to working in ways which are driven by a very different organisational culture to the one you’re used to. 

The key is to start small but think big. Seek out the people who will support your ideas, maybe implement them as a trial and develop proof of concept before seeking permission to go wider.

Work with the leadership, but be prepared to earn their sponsorship

Working (somehow) with the leadership in an organisation to get them on side with new ways of communicating is also critical. The way an organisation is led is fairly fundamental to the success of any internal communications approach.

Sometimes you might find that colleagues in the leadership team are not willing to engage with you directly (remember you’re a radical thinker and therefore a perceived threat!). That elusive seat at the boardroom table or the ear of the CEO, which most communicators crave, might be simply unobtainable.

Don’t let this stop you. There will be people in your organisation who do have that seat, equivalent influence and maybe direct contact with the CEO, and who will be willing to listen to your ideas. Find out who they are, build a relationship with them by helping them solve some of their problems and you’ll earn their sponsorship.    

Gradually chipping away to get buy-in from the top table by demonstrating some small but tangible business outcomes created by new ways of communicating can sometimes be your best strategy. It just takes a little longer, but your patience and perseverance will be rewarded.

Working with the governance

There is a lot of governance and regulation in HE and the complex governance and decision making structures in a university reflect this. If you are going to get anything big done, for example agreeing a new internal communications strategy with the leadership as I did during one of my contracts, you are going to have to learn to work with and leverage the governance. 

Working with governance means that at some point you’re going to have to appear at board and committee meetings to present your ideas and get sign off to proceed. My advice in dealing with this sort of situation is to have lots of conversations about the ideas you are presenting with the people who sit on those boards and committees before you get anywhere near the meeting room. Getting the buy-in to, and familiarising colleagues with, your ideas beforehand means you are more likely to get the nod to get on with it on the day.

Another tip is to get to know the project managers and planning, legal and governance colleagues in the organisation. They are skilled in dealing with governance processes and creating business cases and they can help you get your communications voice heard more loudly and effectively in an organisation where there is a lot going on. Internal communicators need plenty of allies within their organisations, it makes the job just a little bit easier, so try and actively seek those allies out. 

Dealing with highly professionalised audiences

During my career I’ve worked in several organisations where there were highly professionalised audiences and in HE it is a similar environment. A large proportion of the workforce are academics and these highly professionalised groups can sometimes be ‘hard to reach’ for the internal communicator. Their first affiliation and loyalty is often to something else, such as their professional body, subject discipline or wider peer group and not to their employer. This can create barriers to communication and engagement, particularly when implementing change in organisations.

In this situation it’s even more important to understand the audience before even trying to think about communications strategy or tactics. Good communication strategy and plans are founded in good audience insight and before leaping into communication tactics and implementation, work with the audience to understand their perspective on a change project and its perceived impacts on them. This will help you design, tailor and target more effective communications.

Bringing the outside inside

Sometimes working in a large organisation can feel a bit like being in a bubble for employees. The outside world and what is happening in it can either be invisible or feel a bit irrelevant, when in fact it’s actually driving all the change that’s happening inside. As a communicator, you need to bring the outside inside to enable the organisation to better achieve its business and change objectives.

HE in the UK, like many other sectors, is experiencing some fairly fundamental changes at the moment driven by a tidal wave of ever shifting government education policy, intense media scrutiny of value for money and ongoing public debate about ‘what universities are for’ in the 21st century.  All of this can be difficult to understand and interpret for those working inside HE, and it is also deeply unsettling for some.

However, context is all when it comes to communicating why changes are happening internally. We often refer to this in communications as the burning platform. Internal communicators and other PR professionals are best placed to horizon scan what is happening externally, analyse and interpret this and then build it into more effective internal communications and external PR. 

Inside is also outside

These days, increased visibility externally of what organisations do internally mean that it’s even more important to get internal communication with employees right. What happens on the inside, inevitably shows up on the outside and if this is at odds with the organisations stated values and objectives it can often damage your hard won trust and reputation with customers and other stakeholders.

In HE this situation is even more acute, with the main external stakeholder group and customer ‘the students’ effectively being an internal audience.

Inside universities the internal communication channels are mostly visible to both employees and students. This means that accurate message tailoring, targeting and sequencing is imperative to get information to each audience down the right channel at the right time and in the right order, to avoid misunderstandings and confusion. The ongoing industrial action in HE and the endless 2017/18 winter of ‘snow communications’ are specific examples where we had to really think carefully about our internal communications approach and manage the messages to explain the impacts to both employees and students to achieve the right outcomes.

Those are some of the lessons I’ve learned from working in the HE sector. What are the lessons you’ve learned from working as an internal communicator in other sectors, which might be helpful to others? Get in touch and let me know.


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