How to stay ‘Top of the (student vox) Pops’
How can you stay on top of the evolving student voice and ensure it’s at the centre of your communications? Kim Graakjaer, Head of Student Communications at the University of Manchester, shares her thoughts and some takeaway tips.
In the world of student communications, it can be easy to assume that what we’ve done previously still ‘works’ when actually, each year brings a new group of individuals through our doors with varying needs, life experiences, and expectations of university life…
After a series of events shone a spotlight on student communications and made us realise we were not quite in tune, we decided to go back to basics and hit the re-set button on student communications and engagement.
Working in direct collaboration with our students and the Students’ Union, we established new, founding principles – every one of which is centred around student voice and partnership, and from which evolved our Student Communications Commitment.
So, here follows some of what we learnt along the way and, my tips on how to achieve some big hits and aim to stay on top of the student engagement charts.
· Perspectives matter
Gathering a group of students to tell you what they honestly think sounds obvious, but can really be a game changer. One of the first things we did after hitting that re-set button was to form a ‘perspectives panel’ of students from across a range of years, courses, backgrounds, ethnicities, disabilities, genders and overall life experiences. Talking directly over a series of sessions, we found that some things we thought worked well across our communications were getting ‘lost in the wash’ and missed by students and, things we suspected weren’t working that well were readily aired, debated and unpicked.
The variety of viewpoints and individual perspectives that came out across the discussions was truly eye opening. This same panel of students went on to work directly with us to develop our new communications strategy, but – perhaps more importantly, they were also the founding members of what has become our Student Perspective Group – a regular ‘sounding board’ now with 130+ members.
Any student can join the group and we contact them across the year to test out campaign ideas and have them directly involved in designs and development. We put a call out about meeting with us on a particular topic (offering vouchers in return for their time) and there’ll always be members who
want to talk to us. Some of the things we’ve developed with the group include campaigns ranging from cost of living, harm reduction and suicide prevention, right the way through to IT and cyber security. The sessions are so collaborative and we often find the conversations lead us onto a totally unexpected path (in a good way!)
This active involvement of students sharing their needs and opinions to steer and shape campaigns, has now become our bread and butter. It’s a simple mechanic that is easy to implement, but one that really works!
· Free to create
Most universities have student content creators involved in producing material for students – this is nothing new. But what if I was to suggest that content creators work entirely at their own lead, with you rarely asking them to produce anything?
Our content creators have an ‘open book’ – working as freelancers to pitch ideas to us of the topics and content that they’d like to produce. They drive the agenda based on what they’re experiencing and feeling at any point in time, to share the stories that matter to them. We pay them for each piece they produce and, as part of our Content Creators Programme, develop them in communications and media skills through workshops with industry professionals.
Admittedly, this approach is not without some legwork behind it so that is something to bear in mind if you wanted to try it. We work in partnership with an external company to develop the annual skills/workshop programme and, there is the recruitment and ongoing administration of the content creators in terms of discussing their ideas and organising payment, etc however; this approach is hugely successful for us and I’m a massive advocate for it. It really makes the students feel valued and part of the university ‘voice’ as a trusted partner in their Content Creator role, which for some – sets them on the way to their future career path.
· Part of something bigger
Regardless of the size of your communications team, I can guarantee that there will be colleagues across all corners of your institution ‘doing student comms’. How often do you meet them and come together, as a collective community? A huge part of our re-set has been about reviewing how we work together, as part of a single student communications network – our Community of Practice.
“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” [Concept founders, Wegner-Traynor, 2015]
Our Community of Practice brings together colleagues working in various part of the University in student communications-related roles, along with colleagues from our Students’ Union. It’s a great atmosphere – sharing goals and objectives (and importantly, student feedback) and enabling early, proactive collaboration on projects. From a staff development perspective, it’s also a fantastic opportunity for colleagues to expand their networks beyond their immediate teams and conversely, support new starters.
· When the bassline drops…
Ultimately, all big hits have a driving bassline and here, it’s one of partnership. Especially for our star trio – the university, its students, and it’s Students’ Union/Guild.
Just like Sister Sledge, the Bee Gees, or Destiny’s Child – all sides work together to achieve what may otherwise not be possible, on their own. Strong trios really do rock!