Why strategic communication and public relations should be at the heart of merger and ABR planning

By Ben Verinder (Chalkstream Communications) and Fiona Carthy (Carthy Communications)

Join our webinar at 2pm on Thursday 7th July  where we will be providing best practice guidance on strategic communication through merger and ABR. Click here to register.

Experience and guidance are clear – if colleges focus on the process rather than the people in their plans for partnerships or mergers, there is a significant risk they will fail or at best, make an already difficult process more fraught. Successful change requires the support and consent of others and that means ­­­meaningful consultation and professional, two-way communication.

Questions such as ‘what is our purpose?’ and ‘what are our long term aims?’ have communication at their heart and are reliant on consent and support. This can only be gained through healthy relationships and trust which are built on clear, consistent and open communication.

Sadly, poorly managed communication and fragmented messaging is all too common in the world of merger, and this risks seriously undermining the success of the proposals and damaging existing reputations and relationships along the way.

Recent examples include colleges that have brought private partnership discussions prematurely into the public eye before agreements have been met, and merging institutions issuing contradictory public statements, each putting delicate negotiations in peril.

In Scotland we can see the legacy of mergers that failed to achieve the consent of vital stakeholders in the emergence of unprecedented levels of industrial action and discontent.

Analysis of over 135 post-incorporation mergers in England reveals that success requires high-quality leadership at the planning and decision-making stage of merger, which in turn requires absolute clarity on the purpose of the change, and as stated by BIS ‘an ability to reinforce the purpose constantly across all internal and external communications’.

Yet we see colleges treating communication as an after-thought or insufficiently important to require professional attention, manifested as shallow consultation about a narrow range of options or broadcast messaging once a decision has been made.

There needs to be a clear educational and economic case for a partnership or merger proposal (whether that be to merge or remain independent), one that has developed from a realistic assessment of local social and economic need and through genuine consultation with all key stakeholders internal and external alike.

A clear mission needs to be established, particularly when there are conflicting perspectives from each organisation. Internal dialogue needs to take place in private and a clear public position agreed. This is where strategic public relations comes into its own, helping to reconcile the differing agendas and manage internal and external expectations. It helps a new or emerging board or leadership team sift through the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself a symptom of nervousness, to draw a clear conclusion based on the intelligence that matters.

It is also critical to build an understanding of the market position and the reputation of all colleges in the proposal, to start developing a future positioning strategy and that can only be genuinely assessed through impartial research with target audiences.

This assessment of reputation is also useful for area based review submissions, where colleges are seeking to establish a stand-alone position. What is the strength of your brand and reputation? How much brand awareness is there in the community – what will that look like post-merger? As outlined in the Furthering Reputations report in 2009: “Reputation is the product of cumulative activity and evaluation and once earned it has a resilient quality. This is why a good reputation is technically an asset”. How much assessment of the value of reputation is going into discussions and what is this based on? The colleges’ own perceptions or those of the community it serves?

Corporate reputation is closely aligned to the quality of its staff and their commitment to and engagement with the organisation. As most mergers will rely on their middle managers to pave the way – smoothing the clash of systems, processes and cultures into a new harmonised way of operating, open and consultative communication will pave the way to retaining the best people – whereas latent, directive communication could lead to an exodus of quality staff potentially fracturing quality, outputs and in turn community perception and reputation.

And finally to the issue of brand and market position – with a clear mission in place the merged entities can start to form the basis for a new value proposition to the market. This can be achieved either through the maintenance (and development) of existing brands or the introduction of a new brand or group entity.

There is huge opportunity to establish a new, stronger, revitalised market position through merger and the rejuvenation of brand position – but this is needs to be strategically managed and communicated not just through visual representation but more importantly through messaging, online and offline communication and internal values and behaviours.

Join our webinar at 2pm on Thursday 7th July  where we will be providing best practice guidance on strategic communication through merger and ABR. Click here to register.

Recommended reading

Association of Colleges. (April 2016) An analysis of college merger issues

Calvert, N. and Rosner, M. (2010) Understanding FE mergers and making them work, LSN

Learning and Skills Council and Centre for Education and Industry, University of Warwick. (2003) An Evaluation of Mergers in the Further Education Sector: 1996-2000

Payne, L. (2008) The Evidence Base on College Size and Mergers in the Further Education Sector, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Roberts, D. and Thompson L. (2009) Furthering Reputations, Knowledge Partnership

Stewart, G. (2003) College Mergers: Lessons to be learned from other sectors, Research in post-compulsory education, Volume 8, Number 3





Employer engagement in education – six common mistakes

We help universities and colleges improve their relationships with business.

The work typically involves a mix of qualitative and quantitative research among existing business customers and the wider market, and consultancy to help make positive changes as a result.

In our work and the literature we’ve identified six common systemic mistakes that both colleges and universities make in managing their relationships with business.

We thought it might be helpful to highlight them here.

  1. Circumscribing the relationship (aka being shy)

A common thread that runs through every piece of research we have undertaken on this topic is the perception among a (sometimes significant) minority of respondents that the education institution in question is underplaying the relationship.

This can manifest itself, as it did during a study about higher skills in London, as colleges teaching construction students on day release over a number of years but failing (to the bafflement of the employers involved) to engage in a broader conversation about training needs, or outline what the colleges could offer in meeting current and future training needs that the companies may have.

Or, in a more recent study, engineering businesses hire college apprenticeships and want to sponsor lecturer CPD in order to improve the quality of teaching but are kept at arm’s length.

In the higher education sector, one of the best recent examples of this phenomenon was the reluctance of universities to reengage with research users as part of the Research Excellence Framework (as highlighted by the excellent RAND report).[1] Universities felt ‘embarrassed to approach people for evidence, particularly as it made our relations feel transactional’. Businesses, on the other hand, were typically very happy to talk about how they had put that research into practice.

  1. Applying recruitment marketing to business relationships

It’s so obvious as to be self-evident, but human resources directors don’t think or behave like students. They have very different needs, are influenced by different groups and use different communication channels. Yet we commonly see insufficient differentiation between student recruitment and business communication – B2B media strategies, for instance, that focus on general regional publications and eschew the specialist press that may well be an HR director’s first port of call when thinking of training. Or tonal problems, in which the educator focuses on the output benefits of training (such as individual competencies) rather than the outcomes for the business (such as the positive impact on productivity or profit, demonstrable through testimonial or case study).

  1. Making business engagement structurally incidental

In previous decades it was not uncommon for college and newer university employer engagement staff to be physically dislocated from the main campus – housed in a soulless business park somewhere down a motorway corridor.

Although those staff are much more likely to have been rehomed among faculties, where the cultural divide remains, the effects are the same.


  • business engagement does not have a seat at the top table (physically and metaphorically)
  • the training arm brand is deliberately kept at a distance from that of the institution
  • engagement is sporadic and departmental rather than corporate

…then the institution will commonly:

  • fail to maximise on a heritage that is typically appealing to the business customer (who may well place value on the fact that you were established by a particular Guild, that you have been serving a community for over a hundred years or that you taught her grandfather).
  • be exposed to significant risk when it comes to knowledge transfer and sustainability of relationships (when the head of hospitality leaves for another university, college or training provider).
  • see teaching staff take their lead from the senior team and treat the business development team as a second-class ‘support’ function.
  1. Equating customer relationship management with a piece of software

“How many people there in your business development team?”
“How many people do you employ?”
“785 FTE.”
“Do you have a CRM system?”
“Yes, it’s excellent”
“Who uses it to record business contact details, histories and prospects?”
“Just the business development team.”

  1. Confusing LMI with business intelligence

A college or university would be very unlikely to favour broad-brush regional data about lecturers over the results of its own staff survey when using research to inform its HR strategy.

But something similar sometimes happens in employer engagement. While labour market information can be a superbly useful planning tool, particularly in the early stages of curriculum development, some institutions behave as if it is a viable proxy for talking directly to business about training needs.  It is not.

  1. Working against culture

Strong relationships with employers improve the relevance of curricula and propel students into jobs. They help diversify income and thus reduce an organisations’ dependency on the taxpayer.

But that doesn’t mean they will be important to staff.

If, as is common in both colleges and universities:

  • an organisations’ heritage and mission have been built around serving a particular community (of young or unemployed or incarcerated students, for instance)
  • teaching staff form the dominant coalition within that organisation
  • and employment contracts are commonly focused on what might be described as traditional teaching practice

…then it’s no surprise that attempts to shift the culture into an entrepreneurial gear fail.

To put it another way, if a workforce is motivated to get out of bed in the morning for a particular reason (as is the case for college staff, for instance, with remarkable homogeneity – 75% of whom go to work ‘to make a difference to people’s lives’) then trying to persuade them that they need to change their working practices in order to improve the bottom line for business is not going to work.

The challenge here is to:

  • make a persuasive case for change shaped around how professional employer engagement supports those things your workforce cares about (i.e. the students)


  • hire different people on different contracts to deliver employer engagement while identifying (and implementing)
    1. the basic behaviours required of the workforce as a whole to support that effort
    2. the central resource needed for professional, corporate (in the widest sense) communication and engagement.

[1] Manville, C et al (2014), Preparing impact submissions for REF 2014: An evaluation, RAND Corporation for HEFCE


Mordor, Middle Earth and Mergers: A tale of why communication matters

Sometimes it is very hard to distinguish between fact and fiction.

According to one group of contacts, the outlook for further education is particularly bleak. In this version of events, area reviews sweep the land like the eye of Sauron. The fellowships of FE are to be usurped by a swathe of expedient mergers, which will feel (for one side at least) like a siege, rather than a marriage of venerable houses.

Among other manager and teacher friends, these dour predictions are little more than high fantasy. The area review process is an unfortunate distraction. Mergers have long been a feature of the landscape and reviews will not, for practical and economic reasons, lead to a significant increase in their number. Institutional autonomy will hold fast. As Samwise Gamgee says: “But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.”

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. It does look likely that the rate of merger will accelerate, although we cannot be certain when or where this will happen for the right reasons (i.e. to better meet student, community and employer need and improve opportunities for staff).

However it is clear – from the literature and recent history – that where mergers in both further and higher education have been unsuccessful, there are a number of common factors.

Firstly, unrealistic expectations bear down on the enterprise like an army of orcs. Mergers are likely to disappoint those looking for savings in the short and medium term, and those who underestimate the challenge of integrating two recently distinct organisations. Failure to manage those expectations can lead to untimely intervention from funders, governing bodies and regulators.

Secondly, as one college Principal recently wrote, ‘the risk of the weaker institution acting as a drag on the stronger in terms of teaching and learning performance is substantial’. We have seen very strong colleges for instance, led by capable teams, badly injured in the effort of dragging another off the field of combat.

Thirdly, they fall victim to ‘poorly managed post-deal integration’ – lack of appropriate planning and poor strategy and management[1]. Under this heading I would include poor communication and the inability to express a clear vision.

Where mergers proceed, institutions must set out a strong educational case[2] – otherwise they are unlikely to persuade their key publics (staff and students primarily) that it is the right thing to do.

But merging institutions often struggle to make this case. Sometimes there just isn’t one to be made. Sometimes the consultation stage is too shallow to provide any robust evidence either for or against the merger and the opportunity is lost. Or in Tolkien’s words: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

And sometimes the institutions involved simply do not possess the capacity to communicate effectively in such challenging circumstances.

It’s tough. We are bringing together a group of communication experts, all of whom have first-hand experience of mergers, to help institutions overcome the communication and relationship management challenges that they will face.

These include creating and relaying consistent messages at a time when boards or leadership teams want to bring different agendas to the table. At the very point when employees are anxious and management teams are changing, those leading the process need to deliver stability and reassurance while retaining trust through timely, open and honest communication.

Unfamiliar structures – including regional boards and interim leadership groups – add another layer of complexity. The pressures of leadership, momentum, mission, unity, quality and due diligence threaten to relegate communication to an afterthought.

Among the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself often a symptom of the nervousness of key groups, colleges and universities can miss the opportunity to provide an alternative to negative narratives (the institution as victim) or to retain valued heritage rather than abandon it in the rush to create a new organisation.

The most significant challenges typically materialise after a merger; managing the cultural differences between previously competing institutions and minimising the disruption to employees of physical relocation and procedural changes, requires careful, considered and professional two-way internal communication.

Nevertheless some mergers succeed where, for instance, consultation is effective, ethical, and informative, institutions focus on engagement and retention, understand the risks in under-communicating with employees and place a premium on the individual without distracting from the day-job. “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” says Galadriel. The outlook is not necessarily desolate.


[1] BIS, ‘Current models of collaboration – Post 14 Further Education’, June 2015

[2] Oakleigh Consulting Limited, ‘Literature review for the higher education collaborations, alliances and mergers project’, HEFCE, 2010

Why publicity is public relations (and it’s all inherently amoral)

It is ethics month at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and to mark the occasion I finally got round to reading Robert Phillips’ ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’.

As Stuart Bruce suggests in his review, it’s a book about much more than public relations – consumerism, sustainability and modern politics, to name a few monster themes.

Nevertheless, as Stephen Waddington also points out, it usefully rehearses the big challenges facing public relations as a consequence of media fragmentation and important changes to the way we defer and trust (of which, as a former Edelman consumer CEO, Phillips is well versed).

However it repeats two important fallacies about PR – one relating to how it is practised, the other to ethics. These also happen to be the source of much modern criticism of public relations. So, in defence of practice, I was spurred to write this post.

Affirming the consequent

Phillips’ central theme is that PR is a servant of unchecked consumerism and ‘hard wired to promote wants over needs’. He says many other negative things about PR but this one is particularly hard to swallow because it’s patently not true. (Just take a look at War on Want’s description of itself – working in partnerships to empower people, running campaigns, mobilising support, building alliances, raising public awareness. Sounds suspiciously like public relations to me.)

But Phillips has already played his get out of jail free card on page 5. By PR he really means consumer public relations, the suggestion* being that consumer PR is so dominant as to be synonymous with PR and other types of activity are a minority sport. His Jericho Chambers chairman pithily equates PR with ‘blowing smoke up the jacksy of late capitalism’…which leaves one to wonder whether, with old friends like these, does PR need any enemies?

This is a version of an old argument – cited by Phillips and made by Tom Watson in 2013 and much earlier by Tim Traverse-Healy in 1988 – that public relations and publicity, particularly editorial publicity in support of a brand, are different things.

Phillips’ points about the ills of ‘late’ capitalism seem very sensible. Contemporary measures of economic and societal well-being are, by and large, nuts.  We equate increasing levels of consumption with success but our resources are finite. Equally Professor Watson is a leading light on evaluation and measurement and Tim Traverse-Healy wrote the Credo for public relations, which for me is about as wise an aspiration for the PR profession as anyone could wish for.

But they are wrong about brand publicity. We might read about Sweatygate and wish they were right, but that doesn’t make it so. Editorial publicity, media relations, in the service of whatever sector or industry, is part of the public relations tool kit whether we like it or not. And just because it was traditionally the dominant methodology of practitioners working for organisations trying to sell us things we don’t really need does not alter that fact.

The argument about brand publicity involves a common error which, in the language of philosophical logic, is called ‘affirming the consequent’. An example of which is:

All London buses are red.
This is red.
Therefore it must be a London bus.

(When of course being red isn’t a property exclusive to London buses).

In this case the argument goes:

All bad PR is brand publicity.
This is brand publicity.
Therefore it must be bad PR.

Not necessarily, as any press officer for a ‘big brand’ charity would no doubt point out.

That’s not to say that Professor Watson’s wider point about differentiating (via membership criterion, say) between types of practitioners is wrong. He rightly points out that the majority of PR practitioners are not (and presumably don’t want to be) members of any professional body. We also know that the majority of CIPR members, sadly, think that professionalism is above all about pleasing clients. But in these trade versus profession tectonics, brand publicity is not the fault line.

To assign ethics to a discipline is to make a category mistake

Phillips also makes some very astute points about honesty, accountability, trust and empowerment and in doing so shines a light on the dishonesty, evasion and abuses of trust exercised by public relations practitioners in the service of, typically, corporate masters. The book is peppered with (partially redacted) anecdotes of unethical behaviours. Yet to assign ethics to public relations in itself is to make a category mistake,surely? I might use a hammer to help build a home for refugees. Alternatively I might use it to hit someone on the head and steal their purse, but in neither case does the hammer have any ethical properties. It is amoral.

There’s not enough space here to argue about definitions of public relations but (as in the CIPR’s) it is commonly described in terms of a discipline or an effort. The CIPR goes further and says that, to be public relations, that discipline should be used to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics. There’s nothing intrinsically ethical here. I might use my public relations skills to maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between my International League of Litter Droppers and its members, for instance.

We should call out bullshit and lies because they are a) unethical and thus disadvantageous to clients and/or the wider public b) typically bad PR and c) tarnish the reputation of our profession.  We should abide by the codes of conduct for the same reasons. But the prescriptions and proscriptions enshrined within those codes apply to our behaviours in the practice of public relations and not PR/public relations per se.

*(I use the term ‘suggested’ above as it is never wholly clear which target – PR or public relations – Phillips has in his sights. He purposefully uses the term PR as a proxy for consumer public relations in order to support his main premise, that it is a prop for the ugly architecture of capitalism. But the marketing for the book takes a very different tact).

#PRstack – new ebook on PR (and other free tools)

I’m among the contributors to a new guide to modern PR tools published today, the My #PRstack ebook.

There are 18 contributors and 40+ practical examples of tools used in public relations, content marketing and search engine optimisation (SEO).

You can download the ebook for free.

The section I’ve written focuses on how PR practitioners can use the Government’s Nomis data tool to help define or understand the publics with whom they need to engage.

If you are interested in public relations research and evaluation, here’s something I wrote in 2013 about free online research resources for PR; it includes data sources on attitudes, media consumption, political opinion and trust.

Other free tools that I have come across since writing that piece include:

  • the fun YouGov profiler, a free to use app built to showcase (paid for) YouGov profiles, a segmentation and planning tool that allows users to build target profiles using the data from 200,000 YouGov members. (Just don’t mention the election).
  • the London datastore for demographic data from the capital

Very pleased to hear about other free demography, awareness, attitude, behaviour resources that practitioners find useful.

Science PR and communication – headlines from our background research

I am shamefully late in posting to this blog – we have been extremely busy with a number of research projects, but that’s a poor excuse.

Those projects include a study of science public relations and communication that we are conducting for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

In this predominantly qualitative piece we’re looking to understand more about the dominant themes in science PR and communication through the experiences, attitudes and behaviours of practitioners.

At the time of writing, we are particularly keen to find in-house private sector practitioners in order to better represent that population in the study – do please get in touch if you fit that bill and you would like to volunteer for a telephone interview (or recommend a colleague or contact).

We are currently sifting and analysing the study data and hope to publish in May.

In the meantime, here’s a selection of headlines from our background research to chew over:

  1. Television news and factual programming continue to drive public understanding of science.

However, where we get our information will depend, in part, on whether we are actively seeking it and information sources do differ by age group, according to the BIS/Ipsos MORI Public Attitudes to Science 2014. (There’s an astute summary of this research by Alice Bell in the Guardian’s science blog).

  1. Research and public commentary of science PR is dominated by analysis of media relations.

But PR practitioners working in or for organisations involved in natural, applied or formal sciences are no more likely to be engaged in media relations work than other types of practitioners, according to a break-down of the CIPR’s 2014 State of the Profession Survey.

  1. The Cardiff University School of Psychology is investigating ‘the potential role of press releases in creating misleading reports of science in the press’.

The team studied 2011 Russell Group press releases, the associated peer-reviewed journal articles that the instigated the PRs, and in turn, the news stories that arose. Results are due to be published soon.

  1. If you want to understand the impact on specialist journalists as a result of changes in the print and broadcast media business, then take a look at this 2009 Nature survey of 493 science journalists.

In particular the answers to the question: Do you have any other comments or thoughts that you would like to share regarding science journalism? (in the ‘Open ends’ tab). Often beleaguered, coruscating, sad.

  1. The most prolific sources of science and technology stories in the UK media are publically funded science or medical research.

Followed by ‘industry’, non-Governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civic groups, then the UK Government, according to a study published in 2007 by Cardiff University’s School of Journalism.

Hearty thanks to the individuals and organisations that have helped us with the study so far – a proper set of thank yous to come.

Do your spokespeople have an image problem? Why ‘who’ is sometimes more important than ‘what’.

If you are a parent of school age children you may recognise the scenario. Your child asks you to help them with a maths sum. You take a close look, think you know the answer and start to explain the methodology. But within seconds she or he is either vacantly staring into the distance or visibly agitated by your explanation and, it appears, your very existence. If said child asks a relative or friend (in my case the next-door neighbour’s son) to help, you will be left marveling at his or her decorum as they studiously listen to what appears to be a very similar explanation delivered in what seems to be the same tone and style.

You are probably not the worst teacher in the world. It’s just that sometimes who is saying something is more important than what is said. It is one of the reasons parenting author Steve Biddulph (The Secret of Happy Children, Raising Boys etc.) sets such store by what he calls mentors – because teenagers (in particular) are inclined to actively seek counsel outside of the family nucleus because of a psychological desire to ‘differentiate’ themselves from their parents.

New research by social psychologists in Toronto illustrates why PR practitioners – particularly those engaged in public campaigns and debate – should bear a correlated phenomenon in mind.

Nadia Bashir and her university colleagues conducted a series of studies into stereotypes of feminist and environmental activists among US and Canadian participants. They found that large sections of respondents agreed with activists’ messages, but were put off by not wanting to affiliate themselves with the kind of person they think makes an activist.

According to the British Psychological Society Research Digest, the studies included a sample of 140 participants recruited online, who admitted to being less inspired by the arguments of an environmentalist presented as being ‘typically militant’ (their words, not mine) – not just because of seeing him as having more negative stereotypical traits, but also because of not wanting to affiliate with him.

“Past research on people’s advocacy for social change has tended to focus on their beliefs about the issue at hand, or on the personality characteristics of people who tend to favour social change or oppose it. This study is novel in that it focuses instead on people’s perceptions of those who campaign for social change,” says the BPSRD. “The very individuals who are most actively engaged in promoting social change may inadvertently alienate members of the public and reduce pro-change motivation.” Oh the irony!

What are the implications for PR?

If you are involved in social change communications – no matter what side of a debate –understanding the attitudes of those you are seeking to influence in relation to your advocates and ambassadors (distinct from what you are saying) seems vital.

If your research reveals that the messengers are killing the message, then PR’s job is to identify the similarities and connections between those looking to do the influencing and those being influenced, breaking down the stereotypes and developing affiliations. It’s one of the reasons charities (for example) started profiling staff in detail in their fundraising communications and why they spend so much time and effort in selecting and enlisting celebrity ambassadors who will resonate most widely with their target audiences.

What are the alternatives? To change campaigners or target publics? It seems to me that either choice would create more problems than it solves. Transform your activist base and you risk losing the passion and vitality of the people who care most about what you are doing. Shift publics and you risk aiming your efforts in the wrong direction.  Both look like ducking the challenge, rather than the enlightened self-interest of negotiation, persuasion and compromise inherent in trying to find the common ground.

What do other PR professionals think? Is this something you’ve experienced in your campaigns? Any other solutions?