Year of Publication



Martin School of Public Policy and Administration

Date Available


Committee Chair

Dr. Edward Jennings

Executive Summary

A changing higher education landscape – rising costs, competition and skepticism – coupled with a changing media and communications landscape – a 24/7 news cycle with fewer local journalists, new technology and the expectation of instant and constant communication – have pushed universities to try to become more effective and efficient in telling their institutional stories to multiple stakeholder groups. Institutional leaders are concerned about how higher education and their institutions present public value and communicate their impact on both the students they graduate and their communities. But how are they using public relations and communications to deliver solutions for this? Are universities employing public relations as a strategic management function to deal with these issues, or are they simply using public relations as a reactive messaging function?

To better understand, I first set out to define how a higher education public relations or communications office could be defined as a strategic management function with nine indicators. These include:

  1. The university’s public relations (PR) office conducts or has conducted research to assess existing stakeholder group perceptions and relationships
  2. PR office has formed measurable objectives that support the university’s vision, business goals, and challenges
  3. PR office creates and curates content that contributes directly to those objectives
  4. PR office regularly measures communications outputs and outcomes of its work
  5. PR office evaluates and reflects on what has worked well and what could be done differently
  6. The communications function is part of the university’s executive leadership team
  7. The structure of office has moved away from the press agentry or public information model
  8. PR office or CCO uses some type of management tool to set strategy
  9. PR office has a budget allocated specifically for its team that includes resources, training/professional development, salaries, etc. separate from the marketing budget

I conducted interviews with chief communications officers or the equivalent at seven of the 14 Southeastern Conference schools. My main question was, “Is there a pattern among SEC schools to employ public relations as a strategic management function?” I found that there is a pattern among the schools interviewed to employ public relations in this way with three universities appearing to employ public relations as a strategic management function; three universities appearing on track and actively working to do so; and only one appearing to not be on track. My second question was, “What leads a university to employing public relations as a strategic management function?” I was somewhat surprised to find that the interviews did not overwhelmingly point to my predictions of environmental scans, changes in business goals, or shocks to the institutions such as crises. Instead, although not a clear winner, the reasoning mentioned most often was the university president’s or chancellor’s view of communications – what they viewed as a priority and the importance they placed on the function. Without revealing specific universities, this analysis compares seven SEC universities to each other in how they manage public relations and communications and identifies an overall pattern of the institutions working to become more strategic.



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