How to communicate with students

How do you communicate with University students? What challenges do you face daily and how does it differ from employee communication?

RossTarbardMy latest guest post features Ross Tarbard @owlyross, (pictured) he’s worked for the past three-and-a-half years as Internal Communications Officer at De Montfort University here in the UK and is about to start a new internal communication role at the University of Leicester.

Here he shares his thoughts on communicating with university students. Over to you Ross…

How to communicate with students

A lot has been written about internal comms and the importance of employee engagement, but very little about university internal comms. This seems strange, but is possibly because the field is a relatively new one, and because the people doing it are too busy for anything else!

Reach out

At a university, not only are you doing the usual Internal Comms job of staff engagement, working with multiple partners to improve the experience of thousands of staff, you must also communicate with around 15-20,000 students. I’m going to focus on student comms in this post as staff comms have been covered at length elsewhere.

These are students who are focused on gaining the best possible grade in their degree. They aren’t particularly engaged with comms messaging, so you have to work hard to create content that speaks to and engages with them on their level.

Don’t stop me now, I’m having such a good time…

DMU TwitterStudent experience. Everything comes back to these two words. As a university internal comms professional you have think about how to keep your students happy. The introduction of £9,000 a year fees means that while they may not see themselves as customers, students certainly have customer expectations.

This is reflected in the number of surveys students are asked to complete. Between January and April you have the National Student Survey (which feeds into national university league tables), Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey, Postgraduate Research Experience Survey and course level surveys. And students are quick to make their satisfaction or dissatisfaction clear.

Blurred lines

This is where the blurring of lines comes. More so than anywhere else I’ve seen, university internal comms blend into external comms. If you ask staff to keep things confidential, they generally will as they’re bound by contract and confidentiality clauses. You tell students something, you can pretty much guarantee that if it’s difficult or controversial it’ll be on Twitter in ten minutes flat. (Tweet this)

Welcome to the house of fun

The calls for your time in university internal comms are never-ending. In one week I’ve been asked to promote eight separate events; send six all-user emails; create digital signage screens in powerpoint; write and upload 26 news stories; promote five separate themed days; remind students of policies around plagiarism, good academic practice and smoking on campus. This is on top of daily updates to the student and staff webpages and the launch of a staff awards scheme.

You have to work with departments who prior to the introduction of internal comms rarely coordinated their activities. I have regular contact with student services, careers and employability teams, the students’ union, health and safety, HR, estates, four faculties, the events team, the IT department, and our comms and marketing teams. All will expect their work to be a priority, so stakeholder engagement and management is absolutely vital.

Sir Mixalot

Then you have to bear in mind that students don’t have a ‘go to’ place for their information.

Staff will know there’s an intranet, or a web page or an email. Students need to be led to the water, and then you can’t guarantee they’ll drink. You need a broad mix of channels, all pointing to content that’s freely available on the web.

DMU quoteWe use a mix of web content, emails, 50 digital signage screens, posters, direct engagement, and social media, covering Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube and Google+. Obviously we can’t do all this ourselves, so working with a wider comms team (and partners across the university) is essential.

Lean on me

Planning for a campaign is where staff partnerships become vital. You need help to get those messages out there so you need a network of comms champions, particularly among academics, who can get your messages directly to students with no middle man. They are hard to find, so when you do, nurture and treasure them.

The staff comms, while focusing on ensuring they talk to each other and work together well, again comes back to student experience.

Happy, engaged staff means happy engaged students. (Tweet this)

Bring it on home

So what is the objective? The desired outcome is an improvement in student experience and employability, which can be measured through national surveys such as the NSS and the Destination of Leavers of Higher Education. You need a focus on quality teaching, and to reassure students that you are listening to them and acting on their feedback.

Post author: Ross Tarbard.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ross, I found it interesting to read your perspective and learn about this area of internal communication. The fact students don’t have a go to place for info particularly struck me. Best of luck with your new job.

Do you have a story to share? I’ve published the thoughts of 100+ comms pros on my blog over the past six years. You could join them. See the guest article guidelines and do please get in touch with your ideas.

If you want to read other articles relating to practical advice, see the new How To section of my website for a complete list including how to write an internal communication strategy, how to enter comms awards, how to get a job in internal communication, how to counter event fatigue, and lots more.

Looking for a new job?

The jobs page on my website is going strong and there’s on average 40 jobs on there each week. The roles vary in levels – from comms intern to Director of Communication. If you’re looking for a new role, or curious to know what’s around, do take a look.

You can also advertise your vacancies for as little as £30 per week if you’re a not-for-profit, or £50 for other organisations. See the how to place a job ad page for full information.

Thank you as ever for stopping by.


First published on All Things IC blog 21 April 2015.

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