Communicate better


Articles, opinions and case studies. For students’ unions with big ideas.

Out with the old


For students’ unions, the transition from one academic year to the next can be make-or-break for cementing a positive reputation.

Don’t miss this opportunity to take credit for achievements and lay the groundwork for future strategic communication. Hammer home your successes and your strategy.

Another cohort of elected officers is about to exit stage left. That means it’s time to make sure your audiences know exactly what your officers have achieved this year.

It’s one of the curses of students’ unions that the most effective officers are those whose work bears fruit in the long term.

Often, the most fundamental and impressive achievements are the hardest to communicate.

Even if you have a strategy in place and you’re making progress towards your long-term goals, it is important to demonstrate this to your most vital stakeholders — such as your members, your key contacts within your institution, and your Board.

Look at this as an opportunity to check progress against your strategic and operational plans. If you can, get the right people in a room and identify:

  • Key audiences
  • Key messages for each audience
  • Milestones ticked off on your strategy
  • Decisions influenced by your values

Collate these into a short, sharp content calendar for the transition period — and keep the following points in mind throughout.

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If you’re not talking about officer successes, someone else will be talking about their failures.

Whether it’s student-run media, individual students involved in your activities and services, or members of University staff — if you’re not writing the narrative of what your officers have succeeded in doing this year, someone else will write the story of what they’ve failed at.

If you’re not presenting officer successes as milestones in your bigger strategic picture, their work will be perceived as piecemeal.

The students’ union/university relationship is best understood through the use of frames (a topic worthy of its own post). One of the most powerful and negative frames through which people see SUs is as a ragtag ‘amateur’ group in contrast to the ‘professional’ University, tinkering at the edges of decisions made and implemented only by the larger institution.

Anyone who’s seen a university from the inside will know that is… not entirely accurate. But you still need to factor this frame into your strategic communications. If you don’t make it crystal clear how your students’ union own long-term strategy has underpinned your officers’ priorities this year, their achievements will appear to be crumbs off the University’s table — reinforcing that damaging and false frame.

If you’re not claiming officer achievements, someone else will.

You’re not the only group within your institution with narratives and messages to push. Plant your flag in your achievements, or you risk someone else eating your lunch while you’re not looking. Too often have I seen student-led or initiated projects be claimed by University staff as their own idea or success. Often, the influence of the student officers and staff is subtly airbrushed out of the project… usually by the same people who later ask ‘What is it you do, anyway?’

Example: When I was an elected officer at a university in Scotland, we (the student and staff leadership team of the Students’ Association) painstakingly built a case and a coalition for having our building fully refurbished at a cost of over £12m. The funding was not dependent on grants or donations but on a hard-nosed analysis of the changing size and need of the student body and the importance of student satisfaction to maintaining their league table position. But if you read the University’s account of the decision as later communicated to staff and students, it was their Development team’s successful fundraising from alumni and corporate donors (through a programme that was launched after the £12m was agreed in writing) that enabled the refurbishment; the Association’s role was pushed aside in favour of the clear and strategic messages that Development want to convey.

Success has many parents; failure is an orphan.

If you’re not telling troublesome stakeholders what to think, they’ll revert right back to the preconceptions you’ve been trying to weed out.

If you’re working from a recent audience or stakeholder analysis, you probably have some ‘problem stakeholders’ — people or groups who are in a position of influence over some aspect of your work, but have ingrained or outdated negative views of your organisation. Overcoming this can take a long time (another topic worth an entire post) but is often worth the investment. Again, viewing the relationship through common frames is a useful method of analysis. The key is to craft a message that doesn’t cater precisely to their misconceptions (that risks merely reinforcing and validating them) but instead, acts as a battering ram crashing into their misconceptions.

Hypothetical example: If you work for a students’ union with a commercial wing that has a bar, it may have a reputation in the minds of some staff for encouraging irresponsible drinking — even if that was fifteen years ago.

If you were to approach those individuals with a checklist of the responsible drinking measures you have in place, you are at risk of validating their outdated concerns as still being relevant — their takeaway message will be ‘We still have a problem with irresponsible drinking’.

However, if you were instead to shift the key messages away to another category of successes — such as club memberships or local community engagement — then you are setting the terms of the discussion. If they then return the conversation to drinking, you are in a position to declare that matter closed and that it is no longer a major concern within the bigger University-Union relationship.

Want to talk more about frames, content calendars, messaging plans, audience analysis, or anything else I touch upon here?

No matter your budget, there’s something we can do together.

Get in touch.

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Are you ready for 2019/20?

I’ve been neck-deep in students’ unions for well over a decade now. Now I help all kinds of charities, unions and social enterprises make a bigger and better impact on society.

If you’ve got big plans for strategic communications, officer planning, democracy reviews or almost anything else, I can help you lay the groundwork for a successful year. Let’s talk about how we could work together.

Andrew Keenan