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Matt Ross – Telling the story of higher ed

Matt Ross, Research Communications Officer

As a journalism grad and someone who has been fascinated by newspapers for most of my life, some days it feels pretty bleak. Job losses, cutbacks and storied newspapers going “digital only” are now routine. And as newspapers shrink, so does the space for coverage of higher education. A new HEQCO report says coverage of higher education issues has been significantly declining since the mid 2000’s.

Postsecondary education is a tricky subject for media. It is a wide and varied industry that is not always easy to understand quickly. With fewer and fewer reporters on the higher education beat and living and breathing this unique sector, it makes finding informed, nuanced and insightful discussion of postsecondary issues a real challenge.

The solution? Everyone now works in communications. Faculty? Administration? Researcher? Student? Welcome to the wonderful world of public relations and communications. You may not get “communications specialist” added to your job title, but it is essential now that you take an active role in telling the story of what is happening in higher education. If we want informed public dialogue on improving the postsecondary education experience, there is no other choice. But what does this actually mean? It means that nobody is coming to ask you what you are doing and you need to find your own audiences and create opportunities for your voice and perspective to be heard.

It also means putting together your own toolkit of storytelling tools. This requires dedicating time to being a better, more focused writer and presenter and spending time thinking about graphics, web presence and social media. The best piece of advice I can give is to learn from the craft of journalism and use language that invites outsiders in to learn about the complexities of postsecondary education instead of jargon and industry-speak that serves as a code to keep others out. Storytelling is a skill that has never been in more demand.

If it sounds a little bit like I am arguing that good communications is so easy that anyone can do it, let me champion my profession a little bit. A commitment to good storytelling also means dedicating resources to it, and that means getting and utilizing good talent. If you are part of a large institution, you have access to a collection of skilled and passionate people in your communications office, so please seek them out and use them. If you don’t have this luxury, it may mean you need to allocate more resources for communications than you have in the past. Your message is too important not to make this commitment. Becoming a stronger writer and more engaging presenter is an important step, but things like infographics and data visualization, web development and design, and video content are becoming increasingly important and these are specialized skills. We have enough overstuffed, ugly infographics in our lives. Know your limits.

We are in an age where, despite the decline of traditional newspapers, people are reading and consuming more content than ever before. Let’s make sure higher education doesn’t drown in that sea of noise.

Matt Ross is HEQCO’s research communications officer.

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