Communication crucial to advance community work

A good communications strategy is critical to promote public understanding of university social responsibility initiatives, and is a key factor in increasing the impact of these projects on society.

While many universities conduct university social responsibility (USR) work that has been beneficial to communities, these efforts are often unappreciated by the recipients, according to Professor Valmor Tricoli, provost for international cooperation at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

As a result, universities often appear to have benefited more from these interactions than the people in the communities, he added.

“Sometimes, the community feels that scholars from the university are interested in scientific data or information first, and only later with their well-being,” he told a session of the virtual University Social Responsibility Summit 2021 hosted by the University of Pretoria in South Africa and the University Social Responsibility Network from 3-5 February.

“But this can be changed by simply inverting this relation,” he said.

Often, the problem is communication and the failure of universities to use public spaces to communicate their USR work.

While university websites, web pages and online newspapers are, indeed, also public spaces, these are not sufficient and should be complemented by traditional platforms, including radio, newspapers, and posters in buses, railway stations and subways, Tricoli said.

Be mindful of communication vulnerability

“Universities need to build strong relationships with the media and should use digital media as well as social media positively to showcase their work to the public,” he said.

“Nowadays, social media are more important than the common communication tools of higher education institutions.”

In addition, engagement with communities needs to be mutually beneficial, and should be guided by dialogue, as opposed to one-directional communication by which institutions talked to people without the opportunity for them to respond.

As part of the communication process, Tricoli said, universities should be “paying more attention to what they tell us and treat it as useful feedback”.

Besides the need to explore different communication platforms and strategies to reach different segments of society, it was also necessary to tailor content and package it appropriately in order to increase the understanding of the information by different consumers.

In crafting a strategy, special attention ought to be given to those who have ‘communication vulnerability’.

These are segments of target communities who might have no idea how universities operate, and how their work positively impacts society, he suggested.

Many universities, he said, did not appreciate the importance of communicating their social responsibility work to the public, partly because such work was not at the core of their mission. A lack of adequate public relations personnel could add to this.

To overcome this problem, relevant departments could use students to help share the message of their good work with society.

“We also have to encourage our professors to talk more to the media in general, and to showcase what they are doing to help in solving societal issues,” the professor told University World News.

On the other hand, while many external affairs sections in universities do not have communications attached to them, they could work together with other departments to get their work publicised.

They should also consider utilising interns under the supervision of a professor or an officer of the institution to do the messaging.

Overall, he said, a good communication programme should not only increase public understanding of the university’s social responsibility activities, but also increase the impact of education and research on community.

“It should also serve to raise the trust and goodwill towards the institution, which will allow the university to know and keep up with the expectations of society,” said Tricoli.