How to use PR to support student recruitment
Toby Roe argues that influencing student choice needs a targeted approach
In November, a Chartered ABS survey of UK business school Deans revealed that 40 per cent expected their targets for overseas student numbers to be increased for the 2021/22 academic year.
With travel restrictions and social distancing putting paid to physical recruitment events, finding ways to improve visibility among students in international markets is a priority.
Against this challenge, most business schools recognise that having a good profile in the media is a no-brainer.
Many are extremely busy with proactive PR. Often this is covering all manner of topics such as new research papers, new buildings, new hires and so on.
This is perfectly understandable when you know that marketing communications departments are under all sorts of internal pressures to promote different things.
We are not saying that these activities don’t have merit - for instance if you want to attract more research funding or new corporate partners.
But if attracting new international students is your number one objective, the PR approach that works best is both targeted and specific.
This is because most prospects are looking for similar things and in similar places, when they are making their choices.
If you tell them what they really want to know, in the places where they usually seek information, you are more likely to make an impact.
Here are two things to consider when you are preparing a media campaign to support recruitment.
- Are you targeting the right media?
According to the latest Business of Branding (2020) report by specialist consulting firm, CarringtonCrisp in association with EFMD, the titles/events that are widely used by all students in their decision-making process are the Financial Times (68%) and The Economist (30%).
Prospective MBAs, however, also favour titles such as the Wall Street Journal, BusinessBecause and Poets&Quants.
Doing this successfully involves:
- Having a solid relationship with the writers on these publication – in the case of titles like the FT, broadly that means the business education team.
- Understanding what they cover. Research their ‘beat’ – there’s no point pitching a story to the Wall Street Journal for instance, that has no bearing on a US audience
- Knowing the opportunities open to you in these titles. These range from news stories, to profile pieces, editorial spots alongside rankings tables, series or specials (for instance on COVID-19 and business schools) or weekly vox pops
- Not relying on press releases – a short pitch, followed by an interview may be all that’s required
- Having a good grasp of what makes something newsworthy – is your story unusual or counter-intuitive, for instance? How does it add a new angle to an existing topic? Why is it relevant?
- Pitching like a journalist - you are in a competitive situation with other schools - what makes your story special?
- Being ready to respond to deadlines in good time - and being sensitive to their schedules (which can also be months in advance for rankings supplements). This may involve having a bank of ready-to-go case studies, for instance, or, simply, being able to answer questions quickly
- Remembering visuals – a great picture can make or break your chances of getting covered.
- Are you talking about the things that influence student choice?
Typical topics that influence student choice when deciding where to study include:
- Rankings and accreditations
- Outcomes for their careers - for instance where they might expect to get a job and salary
- Careers support at the school and strong relationships with business
- Innovative ways of teaching
- What subject matter is taught at the school
Knowing this, the trick is to see where your school has strengths in these areas and identifying stories to support them.
This comes with a health warning, however, that there is a limited amount that you can do with PR around rankings and accreditations, especially as they tend to ‘belong’ to certain media titles or accreditation bodies. A better strategy might be to target the editorial coverage that runs alongside rankings supplements.
Ways that you might work with your team internally to identify potential stories around these topics include:
- Regularly discussing progress with your MBA team, to see if there are any new trends emerging amongst their cohorts, how they are responding to changing demand or market forces
- Working closely with the alumni team to see if there are stand-out stories of alumni who have made interesting or powerful choices following their time at your school
- Collaborating with the careers department and programme teams to identify people or corporate clients, who are willing to talk about how their business school experience has influenced their next steps or strategy
- Choosing two or three specific topics or areas of teaching that you want to be known for (such as responsible business), and where you can show a tangibly different approach to other schools
- Liaising with faculty, IT and programme teams to identify new methods of delivery - as long as they are genuinely new and not just copying what other schools have done.
As we approach 2021, competition to influence prospective students will remain strong. By using smart media relations tactics, you can supercharge your efforts to increase your visibility in the right places and accelerate your recruitment strategy.
Toby Roe is Co-founder of, Roe Communications, a specialist PR agency for business schools.