Some lessons from Higher Education

Every month we will be sharing a guest blog from one of our committee members and today it’s the turn of the wonderful Martin Flegg, our current treasurer and all round comms hero. Martin has written about his last two years in Higher Education and what he’s learnt along the way. It’s a fabulous read so we hope you enjoy!

For the last two years I’ve been working as an internal communicator at a university in the north of England. Higher Education (HE) is 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. As I move on to my next internal communications role in the financial sector here are some of the lessons I learned as an internal communicator in HE. These might be helpful to 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 worked for many years in 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 practice which I had used successfully for years to take root in my 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.

If you can, working directly 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. Again, 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 be your best strategy.

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 going to get anything big done, for example agreeing a new internal communications strategy with the leadership as I did, you are going to have to learn to work with and leverage the governance.

This can be particularly challenging, when you have no or limited access to the board room to present your communication ideas in person. In this situation it’s important to quickly build good working relationships with those who do, so that they can help you prepare the way for any ‘new thinking’ which will end up for a decision at the top table.

It also pays to get to know any project managers in the organisation. They are often skilled in dealing with governance processes and creating business cases and can help you get your communications voice heard more effectively in an organisation where there is a lot going on.


Dealing with highly professionalised audiences

During my career I’ve worked in several organisations where there were highly professionalised audiences and in HE it was no different. A large proportion of the workforce were 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 communications 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, 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 employee’s 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!

At the university I worked in, the internal communication channels were mostly visible to both employees and students. This meant that accurate message tailoring, targeting and sequencing was 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 recent industrial action in HE and the endless winter of ‘snow communications’ were specific examples where we really had to think about our internal communications approach and manage the message to explain the impacts to both employees and students to achieve the right outcomes.

And finally…..want to become a sector hopper?   

Recruiters often include sector specific knowledge as an essential or desirable requirement in their person specification for internal communication roles. This can be a bit of a deterrent for internal communicators seeking to broaden out their experience by working in a different sector, as I set out to do back in 2016. Don’t let it be. Have the confidence that your skills and knowledge are transferable because they are, you just need to frame them in the right way when you apply.

Internal communicators are naturally quick thinking, flexible and adaptable people, which means we are well placed to ‘sector hop’ during our careers. Or course you also need a little good fortune, and I was lucky enough to be hired by a forward thinking manager who was sufficiently intrigued by the possibilities of communicating in new ways.

Now, onwards to the financial sector…………….if you want to know how I get on you can follow me @martinflegg or connect with me on LinkedIn .


Martin Flegg, Chart.PR

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