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The art of being noticed: Five reasons why UCL has become the media’s go to university

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

University College London, pic Neil Turner

For a university communications professional life can be frustrating; press releases ignored, academics who won’t play ball, journalists making unreasonable demands. These are familiar complaints, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

University College London has an active and high-profile media presence. A typical month can see UCL and its staff being mentioned up to 25,000 times in the media home and abroad.

Academic expertise is a valuable commodity to journalists and the UK’s reputation for quality higher education is a major contributor to this country’s international status. But to what extent does having a high media profile benefit an academic institution?

I asked UCL’s Director of Media Relations, Kirsty Walker, to explain what were the key factors which have contributed to UCL’s extraordinary media profile.

Her first point focused on the skill of the UCL media team, the university’s large community of 6,745 academic staff and the value that the university leadership places on maintaining a high media profile. “We have a highly effective media team and we make a real effort to foster relations throughout the university. We are also fortunate to have a real diversity of expertise so we could be working on space exploration, the latest research on coronavirus or discoveries at Stonehenge,” she said.

“We also have communications experts in each of the faculties and in any week we can deal with between 50 and 100 enquiries from journalists. My team have to match make to find the right expert who’s best placed to respond.”

In addition to actively promoting the work of academic staff, the media team is also prepared for rapid response to the news agenda with a 24/7 duty press officer system. These activities are on top of the usual corporate comms functions of protecting the university’s reputation and promoting the wider institutional stories like university awards, rankings, events and thought leadership for the senior university team.

“We have a very proactive approach. It is important for us to work closely with journalists, broadcast producers and also planning desks. Being able to anticipate the news agenda, whether that’s the G7 or a royal baby, means we can offer experts without waiting to be asked,” said Walker.

It’s a method which has paid off with a rapid increase in numbers of media mentions, doubled in the past five years with UCL now getting up to 25,000 media mentions globally every month.

Another important part of Walker’s strategy is the roll out of a continued programme of media training across the university. “We get to talk to academics directly about the value of doing media work, particularly now under the Research Excellence Framework measuring impact is critical. While media coverage is not strictly counted as impact, we know that getting media coverage leads to more opportunities.

“If you have a good piece that lands in The Telegraph or The Guardian for example, our academics will see increased demand for research, speaking engagements or see their work influence government policy in some way,” she said.

On top of the efforts from within the central UCL Media Team, a network of academics who ‘get’ the media are used as advocates within faculties and departments to support less experienced colleagues.

“We join forces with academic media champions, external journalists and The Conversation to run training which is tremendously well received. It works for us as it boosts our relationship with academics, improves trust and helps them to understand what makes a great story, how to tell that story and what may be some of the pitfalls too,” said Walker.

Unlike some organisations which manage media relationships very tightly, the UCL team are quite relaxed about academics forging their own direct relationships with journalists.

“Because of our deep commitment to academic freedom, we encourage academics to build their profile and develop those direct relationships. Where we do still want to be involved is in helping and advising academics who may have doubts about a particular opportunity.

“If you are an early career researcher and you get a call from Newsnight or The Daily Mail, most are astute enough to check with us or just turn it down,” said Walker.

She also believes that media training plays a useful role in minimizing the risk of problems arising where research is likely to be controversial. By involving the media team you can help control messaging, time the roll out, anticipate questions and work with partners like Science Media Centre to avoid problems.

Some parts of the university community are more engaged with the media than others. “We try to find out why some teams lack confidence, sometimes they are wary and so we may suggest working with The Conversation or doing a podcast as a safe space, compared with doing a live TV interview straight away.”

And Walker is in no doubt that the deliberate strategy of proactive media engagement is beneficial to UCL. “That may be about promoting our brand as a top ten world ranked university, appealing to new students and staff or working closely with the local community.”

Having brilliant facilities and photogenic spaces a stone’s throw from both the BBC and ITV News head offices also helps secure broadcast media opportunities. But Walker points out that the pandemic has changed the way guests are booked for broadcast programmes.

“The fact you can just use Teams or Zoom and be broadcasting to the world changes the relationship and means that any university – even somewhere not close to a broadcast centre – can put staff up for interviews,” she said.

UCL is one of the UK’s top universities, a position that its prominent media profile both confirms and underlines. The strategy has been based on a hard-working and dedicated media team, media- savvy academics, a programme of continual training, proactive engagement with the media, using media champions across the university and trusting academic staff to manage their own relationships with journalists in the knowledge that the media team is there to support them if and when required.

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