PR interview with Jade Watson, PR and communications officer for South Thames College

In today’s PR interview we catch up with Jade Watson, PR and communications officer for South Thames College. She tells us about the importance of community engagement for the college, the very varied audiences it has to connect with and how social media has changed the way she works.

About the organisation:

What issues does South Thames College feel are important to communicate to the public?
There are three areas that are key in our communications. First, how further education Colleges are a hub at the heart of the community providing a wealth of great facilities and affordable education options for local people. Second, the benefits of vocational education and its strong links with industry. Finally, the flexibility and cost-effective nature of studying higher education at an FE College over a University.

How do you ensure the college is regarded as positively as possible in the press and community?
Because we have such diverse audiences we use a variety of communication platforms to ensure a positive reputation.

In order to project a positive image to the general public we hold a series of community events such as hustings around election times and breakfast briefings when there are changes affecting the community, such as building work on the College. We also have ‘here to help’ style student ambassadors in key community areas such as shopping centres to promote evening and Saturday courses and to answer general enquiries.

In terms of positive press coverage I ensure I have a close relationship with key media contacts and keep them updated on any developments, inviting them to one-on-ones with the Principal and Chief Executive of the College. I also try and find interesting angles to promote student success stories to make these more interesting to readers and the community.

What has been your biggest communications challenge?
Reputation challenges affecting the college involving young people, gangs and violent crime, especially post-riots.

Has your ability to operate been affected by budgetary constraints recently?
There has been a reduction in terms of the events we run and throughout the marketing department we are scrutinised for all spend and printing costs. We’ve not printed our Annual Review this year which is one example of cost saving.

In your opinion, what are the main challenges facing communications and PR today?
Other than the obvious and talked-to-death-about difficulty in measuring PR, I find the squeeze in editorial in print publications and overwhelming amount of advertising in both print and online is detracting from good, newsworthy stories.

About your work:

What are the key groups that the college communicates with on a day-to-day basis?

There are a number of groups that are a key part of our communications strategy, these include: stakeholders e.g. local authority decision makers, MPs, pan-London education and funding bodies; employers and the National Apprenticeship Service; young people aged 15-24 (both current and potential students); schools and sixth forms; adult learners; international students and study abroad agents; youth groups; and community support groups such as the Metropolitan Police and NHS support services.

Tell us about a campaign you are working on at the moment.
I’m currently working on the Pride in Your College campaign. This was launched in September 2011 to combat challenges to the College’s reputation in terms of student behaviour. This involves students getting out in the community and actively involving themselves in volunteering projects such as landscaping for primary schools and has endorsement from the College’s stakeholders.

Has the college embraced social media as a part of its PR and communications strategy? If so how has this been successfully introduced coming from a traditional ‘broadcast’ model?

Yes we’ve fully jumped on the social media bandwagon and have an integrated social media presence. This has been successful and worked particularly well with our younger audiences. Moving from traditional media and incorporating social was a slow process at first but it is now widely accepted as part of our communications.

What benefits has a social media presence provided for the college, in terms of communicating with the public?
It is particularly useful in spreading word of mouth to students about what events are on campus. If students see photos of their friends online, they also want to get involved. It’s also good in the sense that we get instant feedback from students and can use this to inform our campaigns.

Are there any pitfalls in using social media platforms in this way, and how has the college overcome them?
The main pitfall with using social media, especially with younger or more vulnerable audiences, is that they sometimes discuss personal issues or inappropriate content on the main Facebook page. It’s also problematic if someone has had a grievance and vocalises this online; sometimes this causes a snowball effect and others get involved, which can become quite tricky.

About journalists:

Which areas of the press do you communicate with the most?
I work across a range of media and get varied enquiries each day. Proactively I mostly work with regional press due to the demographic of our learners and stakeholders. However, I also work on various features for trade press and, due to the close link between the College and the government, we also comment on national stories where appropriate.

Which newspapers or journalists do you find you work with the most often?
Times Education Supplement, Education Guardian, Evening Standard, Local Papers including South London Press, Wandsworth / Streatham & Wimbledon Guardian. Local radio stations.

What can you offer to journalists seeking a story?
Colourful and exciting photos, strong human interest stories and case studies, access to spokespeople, invites to events, timely and quick responses.

How do you build and maintain strong relationships with journalists?
I’m in frequent contact with journalists and offer to help with stories they might be working on. I always work effectively and source the information they need as quickly as possible, I never hide in a time of crisis and I’m as approachable and helpful as possible.

About you:

Are you involved in any other projects?
I’ve been shortlisted for the Golden Hedgehog PR Awards for the Golden Hoglet Award and am also running the Plymouth Half Marathon for Help for Heroes.

Name three guests you’d invite to a dinner party and why…
David Attenborough, Alan Carr and Beyonce – for the stories, laughs and music.

Do you attend networking events? If so, which are you attending soon?
Yes, I attend as many free workshops as possible including Regional Marketing Managers Meetings and College PR meetings. I also go on various PR training events run by the CIM, CIPR and the AOC. The next event I’m going to is the AOC’s Annual Communications Conference in which I am a guest speaker.

What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?
Get as much experience as possible and make the absolute most of any professional training and development your company can offer. If you work hard, everything will always eventually fall into place…

[img|jpg|Jade Watson]

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