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A report from CASE 2012 (a conference for higher education bods)

Whenever you intend to do something a little bit whizzy, technology inevitably fails. I had every intention of live blogging this year’s annual CASE conference but Cover it Live dealt me a body blow when it withdrew its freeness in favour of a business model. Great for them, not so great for me; I’d have to cough up money if I wanted to use it. Pah. To cut a long story short, no suitable solution could be found and here I am blogging the old fashioned way, after the event… so enjoy this less whizzy contribution…

Higher education bods from across the country and overseas descended on Birmingham for the biggest case conference of its kind so far, with more than 1,000 delegates from 34 countries. The aim? To share best practice, learnings, research, case studies and passion for the sector. Oh yes, and how universities are each tackling a new fees regime and a catalogue of changes to the future of higher education. It’s at this point I should point out that I work for The Open University, hence my attendance.

We arrived for middayish registration on Tuesday 28 August at Birmingham’s ICC and after a fork buffet – don’t make the mistake of asking for a knife as my colleague did – it all began with an opening by Mark Damazer, of St Peter’s College, Oxford, who described the creative mess that lies beneath every higher education institution.

And then the sessions began, each following a different strand – marketing, communications, alumni relations, fundraising, strategy or schools.

Here’s a short summary of some of the stuff going on in the sessions I attended… (and if you just want the quick Storify version, here it is!)

CASE conference 2012

 

What excites the public about universities?

Well, quite a lot actually, according to this panel of expert communicators and educationalists:  Jack Grimston, assistant news editor at The Sunday Times; Catherine Hearne, BBC Midlands; Colin Hughes, former associate editor at  The Guardian and now at Middlesex University;  Alice Roberts, author and professor, science presenter on BBC’s Coast and from the University of Birmingham; and chaired by Alistair Jarvis, University of Birmingham.

A news story is “something that makes our audience feel mad, sad or glad, “ said Catherine Hearne, emphasising the need for an emotional connection to a story. Her BBC Midlands patch covers 12 universities. So what makes people mad in HE? Answer: tuition fees. What makes people sad? Answer: the debt gained from university study. What makes people glad? Answer:  Great A Level results, new inventions and things that make people proud of their local area.

Colin Hughes said the most trafficked area of The Guardian site this time of year was league tables. What excites people is how good universities are; their reputations matter.

Alice Roberts – one of the presenters of the Open University/BBC co-production Coast – added: “Any civilised society in the world has had a university in it, going way back in time. Historically, they’re a very real strand in our society and they depend on the public being excited about them, people depend on universities. They’re not just repositories of knowledge they are generators of knowledge and that’s pretty exciting.”

Catherine Hearne then covered what should be obvious to most university press offices – make connections, keep in touch and give as much notice about as possible.

“It’s hard for communications staff to keep connected with people and tell their stories,  it’s a constant sweat,” added Colin. “It’s less evident that unis have great stories to tell about the public engagement of their student body, but it goes without saying that unis have good research stories. Students doing things in the public eye make great stories, which is massive positive about the student body; it’s not just about the academics.”

Someone in the audience then piped up and – using the word inherently much more than necessary – said universities were often behind the majority of news but never got the credit for their news stories. Sound familiar?

“There are lots of things going in at universities,” added Colin, “that people what to hear about, they are newsworthy. But people want to read miserable new stories, that’s the reality, and it’s harder to place positive news stories. Broadly, yes, bad, news sells, but that doesn’t mean positive university stories are not newsworthy.”

 

Improving student communications

It’s a fairly new-ish thing but since around 2009 – Nottingham possibly being the first – universities have been appointing student-specific communications officers. Better student comms can be traced back to the launch of the National Student Survey in 2005, explained Kathryn Jones, director of comms and marketing at Birmingham City University.

She said while engaging with students is much easier since the birth of social media, budgets, human resources and a lack of systems were the biggest barrier to effective communication with the student community.

HEA research shows that one in 12 students leaves after the first year of study and one third think of withdrawing. Those are pretty big numbers and stresses the point that good communication shouldn’t cease as soon as students sign up. They’re the best ambassadors universities have and they need to be nurtured for the whole of their student journey, and beyond. They need a sense of belonging at core level, subject level, faculty level and university level.

Kathryn then handed over Tom Thompson, a student comms officer at BCU, who’d conducted an audit across his university and made some recommendations about how students are communicated to from accepting an offer to study, right through to graduation. (Would it be mean of me at this point to point out, as a BCU student myself, I get lots of campus-related emails when I’m a distance learner based two hours away?)

So, BCU has 25,000 students in six faculties on eight campuses. Tom met with students, focus groups, Student Union groups, staff across faculties to gain a better insight into student communication. He hijacked student council meetings, society meetings and quiz nights to talk to core students but confessed it was hard to engage with the less engaged, i.e. those who aren’t active members of the student community.

Each department had a different way of communicating with its students – for some it was the noticeboard, for others pigeon holes on campus, eNewsletters for others. And Tom’s goal was to draw upon those ‘local’ solutions and implement a plan that worked for everyone. No mean feat, huh?

To cut a long story short, Tom has lots of ideas and is currently implementing them, including work on a new online magazine in which students will play an active role, producing content, designing the pages, marketing the site. This not only helps with communication, but also adds to the professional development of the students involved; it ticks a lot of boxes. And students can visit the site when they like, in order to get the university headlines, rather than being bombarded with often irrelevant messaging. One of BCU’s priorities is employability and this initiative will give students ‘real world’ experience.

Personalised content on the site was also mention and this is something I know a lot of us – either students or HE comms bods – would cry out for.

As part of his work, Tom has built an active community on LinkedIn for student comms officers – check it out!

 

Live social media demo

There’s not a lot I need to say about this as the presentation is online so check it out for yourself.

 

Communication, confidence and making internal politics work for you

If you don’t think universities are highly political and complex organisations, you probably need to take the cotton wool out of your ears.

Birkbeck University’s Pro Vice-Master for Student Experience Tricia King says: “It’s not what you do in universities, it’s how you make it happen. The challenge is getting permission to operate where you are.”

Here are her top tips…

  1. Know the value of a crisis, never waste it. (and if there isn’t a crisis try to invent one, harness something, take it to your boss and present them with an answer.)
  2.  Identify and work with powerful people. Power doesn’t always sit where the structure says it should sit. Don’t fight them, you’ll always lose, try and help them so they can help you. Also find a champion or advocate on your senior team who can help and support you. A lot of nodding and agreeing doesn’t mean things will change. Get the person in power to present your ideas and solutions as people will listen and it will make more of an impact. Universities are about power.
  3.  You have to be of the culture and in the culture to influence the culture. Dress appropriately for your audience; if meeting a donor then dress like them. At Birkbeck the team dresses down because that’s how their community dresses so it’s shorts in summer and jeans in winter. And remember not to use jargon when talking to them, you need to make yourself of that culture.
  4.  Buyer behaviour. We’re used to using language to suit the audience and engage in the right way, but we rarely use those skills internally. Use professional skill sets and turn them on your own staff, what type of people are they? What will work for them?
  5. Sometimes, just do it. It’s often easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission. Risky but sometimes you can get away with doing it.
  6. The importance of story. Good stories are key, you tell stories all the time and they’re powerful. Our job is about storytelling. Tell stories to different people for different purposes and tell those stories back to yourself. We’re so focussed on bitter business we forget what an extraordinary institution we are, that we’re carriers and pursuers of stories. Tell them internally and externally, and remember the emotional hook is at the heart of what we do.
  7.  Is this superhuman effort worth it? A good university will never be anything other than a creative mess and our job is to work in that chaos and not getting frightened by it. We’re creating the future and leaders of society, that’s what wedo everyday and they need what we do more than they ever have done, whether realise it or not. Don’t give up the fight, it’s not just you, it’s the way it is.

There is positively LOADS more to say on this conference, but if you’re not asleep by now you will be soon. For the full story in bitesize pieces, check out #ceac2012 on Twitter.

friends, Guest bloggers, Journalism, Media, Online journalism, social media, what I think, Writing

Surrounded by women bloggers: my day at Cybher!

I have never in my life been to a conference in which mothers breast feed babies while guest speakers talk, undeturbed, about their area of expertise. And that pretty much sums up the relaxed atmosphere at Cybher on Saturday – the UK’s only conference for female bloggers – in which 300 were in attendance.

Throw in free leather satchels, a constant supply of coffee and cookies, some talented and inspiring speakers and lots of happy, smiling faces, and you can’t go far wrong.

9am to 6pm is a long day at a conference for me and I’ve always had enough by 4pm – especially given my 6.30am alarm call to trog to London on the train with my sidekick for the day. But I was wide awake and 6pm and returned home to Milton Keynes feeling inspired.

 

Cookies and coffee and handbags Podcasting session with The High Tea Cast Caz Walton's Cybher badge

Caz and an AVG cupcake Taking notes at Cybher Cybher conference screen in the ballroom

 

I’ve never attended a conference where I’m not ‘working’ it – and Cybher was no different. My latest MA project on multimedia covers the conference, the stories behind some of the guest speakers and how blogs can change people’s lives.

So I had one eye on the conference and the other on my project but, to be honest, this assignment has been a lot of fun and one thing is clear – bloggers are talented, powerful and most of all, lovely. Not concerned about competing with each other, they’re all happy to share their experiences, their tricks of the trade and their expertise. Very refreshing!

So, enough from me, go check out ladieswotblog.co.uk for indepth interviews with some of the speakers as well as a round up of Cybher in pictures, text and audio.

Journalism, Online journalism, social media

Women who blog (and why I haven't been)

Cybher 2012 logo
So, while I haven’t actively been blogging much of late, I have been focussing on blogging in a slightly different way. My multimedia project for the MA in Online Journalism I’m almost half way through is now in full swing and I’ve just launched a microsite called Ladies Wot Blog, featuring audio interviews with some lovely women bloggers.

These bloggers, bar one who I approached from an expert/academic viewpoint on women in the blogosphere, are all attending Cybher 2012, the all-inclusive conference for female bloggers, which takes place next Saturday 12 May in London. And I can’t wait! I still have a couple more interviews to conduct, one to edit and will also endeavor to do an audio report from the event, venturing into live blogging territory I guess. I’ll also take some piccies and follow up with a full blown report of the day when I return home, and possibly some more audio.

I’ve learned loads while doing this project – and continue to do so – and have had the pleasure of chatting with some fab and interesting people. Studying has never been so much fun!

So if you blog and want to hop over to my microsite and share your blogging stories, highs or lows, or just comment on some of the interviews, please feel free to do so. The more the merrier!

Journalism, Online journalism, social media

Women who blog (and why I haven't been)

Cybher 2012 logo
So, while I haven’t actively been blogging much of late, I have been focussing on blogging in a slightly different way. My multimedia project for the MA in Online Journalism I’m almost half way through is now in full swing and I’ve just launched a microsite called Ladies Wot Blog, featuring audio interviews with some lovely women bloggers.

These bloggers, bar one who I approached from an expert/academic viewpoint on women in the blogosphere, are all attending Cybher 2012, the all-inclusive conference for female bloggers, which takes place next Saturday 12 May in London. And I can’t wait! I still have a couple more interviews to conduct, one to edit and will also endeavor to do an audio report from the event, venturing into live blogging territory I guess. I’ll also take some piccies and follow up with a full blown report of the day when I return home, and possibly some more audio.

I’ve learned loads while doing this project – and continue to do so – and have had the pleasure of chatting with some fab and interesting people. Studying has never been so much fun!

So if you blog and want to hop over to my microsite and share your blogging stories, highs or lows, or just comment on some of the interviews, please feel free to do so. The more the merrier!

Journalism, Media, Online journalism, social media, Technology

My day at the Guardian Open Weekend

Author’s note: I wrote most of this post the day after the event and failed to finish and publish it. So it’s a belated report of the Guardian Open Weekend but better late than never, eh?

I’ve just been wracking my brain on the premise that this blog post would start with the highlight of my day at the Guardian Open Weekend. And cupcakes popped into my head. A stall set up just outside the Guardian’s office on York Way sold cute little cupcakes emblazoned with the Guardian logo (in icing, no less) and they were yummers. But that wasn’t the highlight of the weekend, I’m just… Obesessed. With. Cake.

It was great for The Guardian to open its doors for the weekend and let us civilians in to poke around and be the ones asking the questions for a change. Not only could we glimpse the offices over the shoulders of burly bouncers who stopped us straying to where we shouldn’t, we also indulged in some great talks. There were loads of sessions I’d like to have attended and many weren’t targeted at media types. The jewellery making session – they got pliers to play with! –  appealled but I plumped for sessions on careers (very topical in my workplace right now), how to make a video (scores points and work and for the MA), how to publish your own book (a blatant ad for Blurb.com but interesting in case I (when) can’t get published the traditional way) and a talk about how the Guardian’s gone multimedia (interesting, relevant and showcased the Guardian’s great work).

This was a two-day event but my buddy Angie and I attended on Saturday only. So, while Ang sloped off to attend a session on gender and equality – and learned the word ‘pinkification’ – I attended “How to change your career’ led by Richard from careershifters.org.

I love career change stories, I find them really uplifting and they remind me that life’s journey doesn’t have to be straight and narrow. One of the audio case studies played during the session was from a chap called Hugo, and it lingers in my mind still.  “Changing career has given me licence to be the same person in work as I am outside of work.” That’s what I want.

Session leader Richard shared his own career change – from international corporate to social entreprenuer – and his body language changed dramatically as he did. The anger and loathing of his old job showed through his tensed fingertips, tort face and you could see the inner rage come out in his words. Moving on to talk about how he made the change and his body relaxed, he lit up and spoke with passion.

It was interesting, to me at least, that there were at least three journalists in the room (all looking for a new career?) in what was a small ish session comprising no more than 30 people. One young woman was working as a trained lawyer didn’t want a career in law; and that the other session leader Sarah is still trying to find out what she wants to do and is embarking on a portfolio career, trying lots of different things until she finds something that fits.

So, to summarise, Careershifters recommends a five step formula:

  1. Get committed (decide to make a change and be proactive about making it happen)
  2. Get to know yourself (look at what switches you on, not what’s on your CV. Define your ideal career ingredients and take the trial and error approach  – attend classes or workshops to see what you like doing)
  3. Explore your options (use your networks to search for opportunities and set up brief meetings with people rather than firing off a CV. Decide if the strategic (planned) approach is for you; whether you want to ‘jump off the cliff’ and straight from one career to another or the parachute approach which is somewhere between the two.
  4. Make the change (put yourself amongst the right people, get the skills you need, manage your finances)
  5. Stay the course (fear of finances, fear of failure, fear of what friends and family think? Don’t let that put you off)

Session number two was about how to make a video, led by the accidental comedy duo of John Domokos and Laurence Topham. Clearly unrehearsed and unprepared these two characters – Laurence the chatty, hyperactive one and John the demure, straight-talking one – flipped from offering advice to showing clips to demo-ing the iPhone and taking questions.

All Guardian reporters – including those from a print-only background – will be trading their Blackberry for an iPhone soon in order to capture video on the fly. They gave some great examples of video interviews and mini films caught on the iPhone and how you can even edit from your smartphone.

In between trying/failing to establish who was lading the session, the pair offered some great tips on lighting, positioning, angles etc before aiming to split us into teams and briefing us to gallivant off and collect vox pops, wide angle shots and general views (GVs) so they could edit it together for a video report on the Guardian Open Weekend. And when they sent us off on our mission, it was only then they realised they needed to get the footage off us, somehow, in order to edit and use it. It was a last minute scramble to hand over an email address to send clips, and the session ended in semi confusion.

Ang and I didn’t take up the video challenge, which clashed with lunch on a noisy side street and our following two sessions – plus a browse around the event’s bookstore featuring the wares of Guardian authors – but this is what some of the others came up with..

We attended a session on how to publish your book which I was expecting to be about why you’d choose to self publish over battling for an agent and then a book deal in this day and age when the publishing industry is flagging. But nope, it was a blatant advert for Blurb.com, a company which helps you publish your own books, whether you’re aiming to be the next JK Rowling or wanting to create an album of photos for loved ones. A few people got up and left after 15 mins but we stuck it out to the end and it was actually interesting. There’s no need for me to fill you in though, you can head straight to Blurb.com for all the info.

Our day ended on very low comfy chairs listening to a handful of Guardian folk talking about how the company has gone multimedia. If you think the Guardian is just about a newspaper, you’d be very wrong, and they plough a lot of time and energy into creating awesome videos, including this incredibly moving and powerful animation; multimedia journalism at its best. They alsolaunched Streetstories, an audio-community-history project for the Kings Cross area.

It was a great day, I left knowing more about the Guardian and hopefully other folk did too. Plus the cupcakes were really rather tasty.