Andy Carter

I’ve been on the sidelines of the local government family for 18 months now since I moved from Leeds City Council and into higher education.

But - it’s not that different and ... it feels like I have stepped back in time.

That’s because this sector is yet to feel the real pain of government cutbacks, unlike local government which is still hurting from the ongoing squeeze.

There are other parallels too.

LGcommunications national chairman Cormac Smith talks about communications professionals being “scientists not artists” - something I completely agree with.

The trouble is, many of our employers see us as a bolt-on, a nice-to-have and perhaps nothing more than a press office.  That’s a frustrating attitude, but I can reassure you colleagues that it is no different over here in university land.

Well, I say “is” because now it’s more like “was”.

You see something pretty fundamental has happened in higher education - a “game changer” you might call it: tuition fees and the way students are recruited.

I won’t bore you with the detail but it essentially means there’s suddenly a very competitive market out there with institutions trying to attract a shrinking pool of “customers”.

I say “customers” because that’s a dirty word in higher education even though it’s obvious to most people that if someone is making a choice about where they spend their money or if they are paying for a service, then they are definitely a “customer”.

The result is that communications and marketing for many universities (mine included) has shifted over the last few months from being a passive service to a strategic function.

That’s because in a crowded market place, you need an effective communications operation to cut through the noise, you need a strong story (your corporate narrative) and your messaging has to have traction with the intended audience.

Given the fact that getting students through the door and enrolled on our courses has become the number one strategic priority, my team and I are now playing a strategic role in the organisation.  We’re closer than ever to the top table, we’re influencing the agenda, leading the work and proving that communications and marketing is important.

Actually, no, it’s VITAL.

Oh, and of course, proving the impact of our activity is easy too.  Even crudely we could count the students signing up and use the figures as a metric for evaluation.

Today (Weds 5 December) Chancellor George Osborne is likely to admit that the economy’s not in great shape and his austerity measures are likely to continue for longer.

So, for public sector communicators that means the job of telling your citizens or service users about how your organisation is managing its shrinking resources is likely to go on for a lot longer.

If that issue isn’t at the top of the agenda of your political or corporate leadership then I’d be surprised.  If it’s not, you need to be in there.  Make sure your elected members understand the need for coherent comms as they attempt to negotiate what may end up being a bigger minefield of potential cuts and closures.

Of course, that means you will have to adapt, innovate and probably review the tools and channels in your arsenal.  The message is likely to change too.

Despite the circumstances, now is probably a good time to show you’ve put your painting kit away and instead you’re in a white coat, test tubes and petrie dish at the ready.

Good luck.

Posted on 5th December 2012