How PR Has Helped My Career in HE Marketing 

Public relations and marketing have always been closely linked. As someone coming from a PR background, having studied both PR and marketing at university, I always knew that there were similarities between the two fields. However, it often feels like these two departments are separated when it comes to the workplace. It wasn’t until I started marketing in HE that it became apparent how these two fields could help strengthen each other when intertwined into larger company goals and objectives. The key areas these two fields play off one another are: knowing your audience, storytelling, and providing value. 

Know Your Audience 

The first PR principle I’m going to focus on is knowing your audience. This involves identifying key characteristics that distinguish your specific audience, including age, location, interests and motivations. It’s about identifying the needs and wants of your target audience. Think, how they will react to, and be impacted by this news? What actions are they likely to take from this news? A PR professional always needs to be one step ahead, laying out all potential outcomes. 

PR vs HE Marketing Audiences

There are typically two audience groups that are targeted in PR: the media outlets and journalists who will pick-up the story. In the case of HE, it’s students, faculty and stakeholders. When information is released to the public, it’s typically done through press releases or during news conferences. Before information is released, the story is framed to “influence” the public’s perception in a positive way.  The main PR objective at this step is being able to shape how your audience will react to the news. This differs from HE marketers who have a slightly different objective to meet. Usually, it is more action focussed, such as driving course sign-ups or promotion during enrolment periods.  

When PR and marketing efforts are combined, you should be able to meet both objectives in a campaign. For example, a university decides to launch a new campaign to help combat climate change. Part of their initiative is to recruit students to be a part of their new environmental sustainability courses.  A combined strategy could include crafting a press release to announce the new environmental policies, which could also be featured in digital campaigns. Another strategy is to combine budgets to strengthen outreach efforts and maximize campaign potential.  

When framing this story for the media, facts about new climate initiatives need to be included, with the narrative being framed in a positive light. On the other hand, students and faculty need to know they will be in good hands, and are looking to the organization to provide a positive emotional experience regarding the university, courses, etc. One news story can speak to multiple audiences at once and can exist in the same area. 


The second PR principle I’m going to dive into is storytelling. Storytelling is used to create an emotional connection between the organization and the audience. In other words, an engaging narrative is easier to resonate with than just stating the facts. A PR professional knows this, and purposely crafts a story to highlight certain features that will benefit or be of interest to the target audience. Although you are speaking to a broad audience, you have to help the reader interpret the information. For media outlets to pick up a piece, the story needs to be memorable. It also has to contain information that is easy for the reader to digest and share with others.   

HE Storytelling vs PR Storytelling

HE marketers need to capture their audience’s attention in their campaigns and lead them to take a specific action. In an increasingly competitive environment, positioning is key. Think, what makes their organization stand out from competitors? What can they offer that is unique and will meet the user’s need? A marketing narrative tends to be more personal than PR, communicating messaging on a one-to-one basis. It isn’t about reaching the whole HE sector, it’s about the student, the university and their future at the organization.  

Where these two fields come together is taking the facts and weaving them together in a compelling narrative. The background story needs to be rooted in history and lead the reader somewhere. Going back to the climate change example, what is it that will make students want to enrol in new sustainability courses? Through sharing their background and expertise, a university can encourage students to sign up for these courses. This includes the organization’s history and values, research they have conducted, the goals they hope to achieve, and more importantly how students can be a part of this change. Both elements are necessary to provide context to the reader. 

Providing Value 

The last PR principle I’m going to explore is providing value. For a story to provide value, it needs to be timely and newsworthy. It usually pertains to what is happening in the news right now, and how it affects the public. What does this mean? A story needs to be relevant to the audience you are targeting, otherwise impact will be minimal. One story is more newsworthy than another, it just depends on what your specific audience cares about.  

PR professionals need to reach as many people as possible in their target audience and encourage others to share this information. The first step is establishing relationships with the media. Providing stories in a timely manner and showing credibility in the field is essential. The same is true with reaching students. They need to feel that the organization is the best place to find what they are looking for. This is done through sharing important information such as a university’s initiatives, course sign ups, etc. in a timely manner.  

HE marketers need to meet a certain objective, whether that is driving course sign-ups, promoting enrolment, etc. How do they provide value to their audience? Through campaigns that speak to the student’s personal needs, such as career-oriented goals. The underlying value comes from what the university can offer the student, and why they are the best choice. 

Both fields can benefit the other through creating consistent and unified messaging. The steps taken afterward differ, but the core principle is the same. The university needs to be the first place the audience goes to find key information. Combing resources is one strategy, making sure that messaging is consistent in both PR materials such as press releases, and in marketing materials like digital and out of home campaigns.  

Combining PR and HE Marketing

When PR and marketing efforts are aligned, it creates a stronger overall strategy. Although the specific objectives usually differ, the underlying principle is the same. PR professionals and HE marketers can learn from each other and work together to reach an organization’s goals.