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Stick to facts when marketing to students

Nic Mitchell finds out whether lessons can be learned from a UK crackdown on misleading marketing messages to potential students

“Higher education marketing and PR managers should be extra careful when making marketing claims based on rankings, league tables and graduate forecasts.”

Jan Dries from the University of Antwerp

So says EUPRIO Vice-President Jan Dries, Director of Communications at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, where we held our 2016 annual conference under the banner of ‘Living the brand’.

He was reacting to news that six British universities were censured by the country’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and forced to retract marketing claims that could mislead potential students. Three other UK universities also agreed to withdraw unsubstantiated claims from websites and social media.

The reprimand sends a warning shot across the bow of all universities trying to over spin their position in the rankings and other higher education data and failing to back up claims with facts.

But is it just a British problem, where high tuition fees have led to fierce competition between universities and turned students into consumers who don’t expect to be misled?

More comparable information please

Not necessarily so, according to Jan. He says: “The Flemish student organisation VVS made a study about the higher education information brochures and came to the same conclusion: less marketing please, and more real comparable information.”

He went on to warn that rankings were questionable and often hard to interpret. “They reduce the complex reality of a university into one easy figure: easy to understand, easy to communicate. But it has little to do with reality.

“Once beyond the top 20, the differences between universities become very small. Using that one figure as the main attraction point is not a good idea. It barely says anything about how it is to study or work at that specific university.”

From research at Antwerp, Jan says: “We know that what students want is realistic, transparent, truthful information, personalized if possible. Not one general euphoric figure, next to a picture of some shiny happy people.

”Truthfulness is the cornerstone of universities. We shouldn’t play with that.”

It is a view shared by British EUPRIO member Emma Leech, Director of Marketing and Advancement at Loughborough University, and President-elect of the British Chartered

Emma Leech from Loughborough University

Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) next year.

Writing in Research Professional, Emma said: “As the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) wades in to investigate and crackdown on misleading adverts in higher education, many in the sector will, perhaps, be doing a slightly worried audit of their own claims. It’s about time too.”

Trust eroded by fake news

With trust being eroded on a daily basis worldwide in an era of fake news, Emma asks: “Is it any wonder that many HEIs’ broad brush claims (predominantly used without source or substantiation) have fallen foul of the watchdogs?”

And so what started with a complaint earlier this year against the University of Reading and its claim to be in ‘the top 1% of the world’s universities’ has now led to nine UK universities having to stop or change their marketing messages.

It has also led to a strong rebuke from the ASA’s chief executive Guy Parker, who told universities: “If you’re making claims about your national or global rankings, student satisfaction or graduate prospects, make sure you practise what you teach… by backing up your claims with good evidence.”

Emma says the new rulings and advice from the ASA and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) on Universities: Comparative Claims doesn’t mean that universities must abandon using league table positions and related statistics – but they must make sure what they say about themselves is not misleading.

“My own institution makes use of our rankings and standing in a range of areas, but we take care to quote source and to keep a centralised and regularly updated copy bank – which is dated – to ensure we use data transparently and in a timely way,” said Emma.

It is good advice; and it is what I did when managing a university press and public relations team, where I worked closely with the academic registry and senior planning team to make sure we were all singing from the same hymn sheet where it came to quoting facts and figures about the institution.

So is the problem of over doing the marketing spin to attract students mainly an Anglo Saxon problem? You’d think so when speaking to colleagues around Europe.

Don’t take rankings at face value

Andrea Costa from Bocconi University, Millan

Italian EUPRIO stalwart Andrea Costa from Bocconi University in Milan told me he lists his university’s “current positions in the ‘most notorious’ rankings – without any trace of spin – and outlines their methodologies and advises readers not to take them at face value.”

He adds: “At best, rankings give a broad indication of some strong points of a university, but they cannot provide the whole picture and were never meant to.”

And Norwegian EUPRIO Steering Committee member Julie Backer from the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, pointed out: “League tables are not so relevant in Norway. Most Norwegian students don’t know what they are, so we do not use them in marketing and student recruitment. We have some numbers on employability, but are careful when we use these in marketing.”

Mind you, Czech EUPRIO Steering Committee member Petra Köpplová from Charles University, Prague, notes that the Times Higher Education is holding its International Research Excellence Summit 2018 in partnership with Palacký University Olomouc in the Czech Republic next April.

So, maybe rankings will become more important around Europe in the future – for research profiling, if not marketing, and for trying to reach foreign students looking for some kind of ‘independent’ advice on where best to study abroad.

I also noticed in my research for this blog that a number of European universities make quite sweeping claims in their brochures and online, such as being a ‘leader in the field’ or ‘internationally recognised’.

If challenged, can they all back up their marketing messages with facts? Or are they over-reliant on what Emma Leech calls ‘lazy girl marketing’: the rolling forward of text, images, and ‘facts’ that probably never were facts, the sources of which are lost in the midst of time?

Also see:

My blog ‘Universities told to avoid misleading marketing claims’ on DelaCourCommunications.com

Six universities told to change advertising claims, BBC online

Advice on non-broadcast advertising from the UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice: Universities: Comparative Claims