Universities and the media during Covid-19

This September saw a fourfold increase in media coverage of UK universities compared to Sept 2015 – what are the takeaways for university leaders and communication teams?

Universities and the media maelstrom

September 2020 saw a fourfold increase in media coverage of UK universities, compared to 2015. Like many sectors, media coverage for universities follows a seasonal trend based around the academic year, but the increase in media interest in 2020 has been staggering. Of all the coverage about universities published in September over the last five years, 38.4% appeared in 2020, compared to 9.8% in 2015.

Analysis of media coverage of 139 UK universities reveals some key insights for university leaders and communication teams wanting to make sense of it all and develop a media relations plan for the coming months. Whilst coronavirus dominated the headlines, here are three things we learnt:

  1. By understanding the six key emotions driving engagement with media coverage – happiness, anger, sadness, fear, surprise and disgust – it is possible to counteract the deluge of unfavourable headlines with uplifting news.
  2. Identifying and responding to trending issues can help put universities back on the front foot.
  3. Generating more coverage doesn’t equate to more impact on the target audience.

Coronavirus remains a reputational challenge for universities

The reputational impact of coronavirus has been considerable. At the start of the first national lockdown 90% of the universities’ audience were engaging with media coverage about the virus.

But with almost half of all coverage (48%) focusing audience attention on coronavirus by late September, it remains hard for universities to communicate positive news stories. Of the 139 universities, 99 (71%) had Covid-related coverage that evoked negative emotions. This has far-reaching implications because it exposes and predisposes the audience to high levels of fear, anger and sadness.

Positive stories about innovation, especially in highly unusual areas, create alternative headlines that promote happiness and dampen the effect of coronavirus

Counteracting the negative headlines, with uplifting news

To counterbalance the unfavourable coverage, universities need to look at what is driving happiness for higher education. Pockets of content which are favourable to reputation do exist, and these provide clues about how the tide of audience opinion can be turned.

Universities are rightly keen to publicise their academic ‘firsts’. There is a particular kind of ‘first’ which substantially contributes to happiness. These are stories about ground-breaking course content and other innovations. Coventry University managed to engage readers in September to create a swell of happiness by launching its unique Masters in Driverless Cars. Another example was the announcement of University of Glasgow’s ideal counterpoint to coronavirus – a new Research Centre in Fantasy and the Fantastic.

Positive stories about innovation, especially in highly unusual areas, create alternative headlines that promote happiness and dampen the effect of coronavirus.

Identifying and responding to trending issues

The ability to spot which issues are increasingly reaching the audience can provide early indication of where opinion might be heading. In the six weeks to the end of September, two strong ‘trending’ themes became increasingly prevalent.

The first was international students, where emotions expressed in coverage can do a great deal of harm or good by influencing the prestige ratings of UK universities among overseas applicants. Overall, any happiness that existed was subsumed by fear, anger and sadness, with content positioning them as a threat to health, to be tested or quarantined on arrival and potentially seeding outbreaks of coronavirus on their return home at Christmas. Hosting international students and academics is normally a tremendous positive for university reputations, but the current global situation has put a different, less welcoming slant on things, which universities need to remain cognisant of in their messaging.

The second trending issue was student mental health, and this emerged even before halls of residence with coronavirus outbreaks went into lockdown. Over six weeks prior to the end of September, national media coverage of student mental health issues increased more than any other topic (engaged audience reach was up 22%). This reflects the impact of severe restrictions on social lives, less part-time jobs and classes increasingly online.

More coverage doesn’t mean more impact

Oxford and Cambridge dominate the league table of institutions generating the highest volumes of coverage across national, regional and specialist media. Similarly, the Russell Group universities are often near the top of the list when looking at volume of articles.

However, volume is not the best way to measure media effectiveness. It is the content that engages the largest audience that influences reputation. This table shows the top media in September when effectiveness is calculated by size of audience for topics relating to universities. Looking at the national media landscape, theguardian.com engaged 40.97% of the total audience, although it published 22.47% of the total volume of articles. Yet not all national media are equally effective – independent.co.uk published 2.53% of the total national media coverage, engaging only 1.51% of the total audience.

This doesn’t mean that all universities should necessarily target theguardian.com but having insights into the effectiveness of named titles can help with understanding which mix of publications works best for their target audience and the PR stories they have to tell.

Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Wolverhampton are examples of universities getting much larger media audiences than their size, status or share of coverage volume would suggest

Some newer universities are starting to outperform more established institutions. Whether intentionally or not, Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Wolverhampton are examples of universities getting much larger media audiences than their size, status or share of coverage volume would suggest. They do this not by creating lots of coverage, but by appearing in the right places, in publications which manage to engage the audience by presenting relevant content in a way that makes people actually read it.

Taking back control

The media environment is extremely challenging for all universities right now and looks set to continue this way for a while, as the impact of the coronavirus pandemic continues to reverberate through society. But by understanding how audiences are being influenced by coverage, universities can reduce the impact of the virus on their reputations. Having the right data about audience size, media effectiveness, emerging issues and the emotional impact of coverage can help PR teams to develop proactive media strategies, taking into account the publications and types of content that work best for their institution in the current climate.

Karen Williams is director at Metricomm, a data company for PR planning and evaluation

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