CubedThinks: The power of research communications during COVID-19

CubedThinks: The power of research communications during COVID-19


University marketing and communications has certainly come a long way in the UK. Competition to attract the best undergraduate students has given way to more innovative campaigns, more people focused narratives and no longer just relying on the promise of the “great” student experience – for the most part. There is more of a focus on skills students will gain, evidence-based communications in the form of successful alumni stories and greater efforts to link courses to employability outcomes.

But there aren’t many universities who stand out for having found a clear and engaging way to articulate the connection between the education they offer to undergraduates and the ground-breaking research that many universities carry out every year. And it’s obvious why. There aren’t many prospective undergraduates who understand that the innovations around them, whether in health care or how they use the internet, are a result of research carried out in universities.  Many are still deciding what course they’ll enjoy if they get the grades, how independent living will affect them and what careers are open to them in the future – and even that is sometimes a distant consideration.

While the research narrative is often reserved for postgraduate applicants we could be missing an opportunity to tell more people about the purpose behind our brands.

Now is a time for universities to really educate people on their value to society, not just for our economy but for international relations and solving the most pressing global challenges – and communicating that in the right way needs to be carefully managed.

The Edelman Trust Barometer is a large-scale piece of research carried out each year for the past 20 years, measuring the level of trust the public has in key institutions including Government, NGOs and the media. Since the coronavirus hit the world, Edelman have run a smaller scale survey across 12 countries, involving 12,000 people (the main Barometer usually surveys 35,000+ people). While focusing on the private sector, the results are relevant for universities and their communications.

The survey reveals that peoples’ expectations of brands are that they should be focused on solutions rather than image. 84% of respondents said that they wanted brand advertising to focus on how they can help people cope with pandemic related challenges. There is a strong desire for expertise with 84% saying they want brands to be a reliable news source. And how brands treat their employees is in full focus.

Universities are undoubtedly a key source of reliable information as we see university experts all across the news at the moment. Statistics and modelling from universities such as Imperial in the UK and Johns Hopkins in the US are informing government, but are also informing the public like never before. I would argue that for the first time, prospective undergraduate students are beginning to see the wider impact that universities have on society, and they’ll be looking at how their chosen institutions are responding.

A recent post from the University of East Anglia reporting on how their scientists are part of a research group to produce portable COVID-19 testing kits, prompted a response on social media from an applicant saying how proud they are to have made UEA their first choice.

And if you want to feel proud of what the UK higher education sector is doing as a whole towards the pandemic, then take a look at the round up campaign from Universities UK #WeAreTogether

My CIPR communications colleagues in UK universities are currently working hard to reassure not only their prospective students and their local communities of their response, but also their own staff, many of whom are helping government and health authorities in their life saving work.

Now is the time for communications and marketing professionals to work together and combine their strengths to get the messaging right, with sensitivity and clarity, connecting everyone to the vision and purpose so often quoted across websites – never has a strapline carried so much weight.

So how do you make sure you are effectively communicating the research you are doing at this time?

  • Communications teams in universities are always connected to the media and spend a large proportion of their time connecting them with your experts. But this isn’t where the work stops – your communications colleagues are there to make sure the media are aware of what you do, but they do that by expertly crafting an understandable narrative – by turning complex research into content the general public can understand. And they coach your experts while doing it – not all of our great scientists are great communicators, so some professional advice is welcome.


  • Bring people closer to the research by communicating the stories and the people behind it. Showing the human face behind the research, and the story of why the work came about, is an effective way of communicating what could otherwise be complex research. This is a good example from Loughborough University.


  • While communicating through all of your key channels to reach prospective students, don’t forget your alumni team. E-mails to your alumni network reach an engaged audience who can be even better advocates for your work if you keep them informed, and often a well timed and executed e-mail can break through the overwhelming amount of information we are trawling through every day on social media.


  • While not every university is research intensive, there are still ways to communicate how you are helping with the challenges we are facing. Student nurses and other frontline professionals are being fast tracked to join the workforce early – there are personal stories to be told which many can relate to and be inspired by. Communicating the value of a variety of careers in healthcare will open up possibilities which many prospective undergraduates won’t have previously thought of.

Those universities who have always made a strong connection between their research and their education will appreciate the value of good communications when facing global challenges, although none quite like the one we are experiencing at the moment. When I am looking for inspiration from an education brand which knows how to communicate its impact, I often revisit Monash University in Australia. Monash has led the way for some time in communicating what’s relevant about its work and how it makes an impact. It is direct and inspiring, and even more so in the current climate:

Working within communications in the education sector has always inspired me but even more so now when I see all of the great work being done by incredible individuals. The next challenge facing higher education is more uncertain, as we move through the pandemic, but engaging and informed communications will always be key.

Suzy Giles is Managing Director of Giles Global Communications, a consultancy working with clients in Education, NGOs and the Not-For-Profit sectors. Suzy is a CIPR Accredited Practitioner and is the current Chair of the CIPR Education and Skills Sector group.