The great problem for any writer is getting and keeping an audience. Those who do not, rarely make any money from writing -- except for writers in college public relations departments. As a former member of the club, I criticize college public relations without the self-satisfied hauteur of a disgusted member of the faculty. I understand how a writer can get ensnared in a culture of bad writing.
We, who were once promising writers, who thought we would be read and appreciated, have become reader-less hacks. If our copy registers at all, it registers as blips that bounce in and out of consciousness, or as frissons of irritation that fade when a reader escapes the intrusion -- when she presses the figurative “skip this ad” option.
Distracted, bored, or annoyed readers cannot be classified as ideal audiences -- an obvious problem for college relations. Readers who click off your work product as soon as they see such phrases as “investing in the future,” “advancing knowledge,” “unprecedented achievement,” and the favorite term of “aspirational” rhetoric, “excellence,” (about which the late Bill Readings wrote exhaustively in The University in Ruins) present public relations departments with problems that they sometimes do not to recognize. Readings’ observation that the emptiness of words like “excellence” serve indiscriminate appeals to broad and undiscriminating audiences might spark new approaches to college communications -- if anyone in public relations would just get serious about improving their work product.
As representatives of intellectual communities, charged with thoughtful communication of institutional goals and policies, departments of college relations ought to be more analytical. Especially in times of crisis, writing about higher education should not be annoying and boring intended audiences. It should be contributing to revamping paradigms of higher education that may be preventing colleges and universities from being effective. Nowadays, with academic missions in flux -- government disinvestment, challenges by for-profit universities, growing enrollments, and a shifting focus from education in the humanities to education for the market place -- all college functions ought to be subjected to some serious appraisal by self and by third parties.
What to do? Do you approach the problem with two barrels aimed at the obvious targets -- style and content? Probably that will have to suffice. Getting rid of gee whiz journalism that readers avoid like poison ivy, is absolutely necessary and takes daily acts of will, directives from above, and perhaps a few writing seminars for the entire department. To change the cloying, empty rhetoric common in academic publicity, rhetoric that seems deliberately emptied of meaning and intentionally uncommunicative, will require department heads with some imagination. But there is much more that might be done.
It is unlikely that we will ever completely eradicate the most basic source of bad writing -- the inhibition of free expression by cloistered thinking, rigid expectations of recognized authority -- parents, teachers, bosses, religion, in short, by normative repression. (I hear from other college writers that another cause of bad college writing is the stultifying cult of college presidencies that they have to help create and support.) If only those with executive powers -- parents, teachers, bosses, God -- would loosen the strings of authority and allow the little people small measures of authority so they might think for themselves, they might also write persuasively.
Barring social revolution, we can set writers free within the strictures of academic structures. For pragmatic approaches, it is helpful to look to the doers not the theorists. Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, [“Colleges Should Stop Counting Their National News Clips”] John Ross (a public relations expert) points out the inefficacy of university public relations workers focusing their efforts on mentions of their colleges in newspapers: “After 30 years [of work in academic public relations], I've seen little, if any, reliable data that directly relate the occasional mention of a college in major newspapers and magazines to a continuing success in fund raising or to sustained increases in enrollment and retention.” Instead, he proposes that public relations departments undertake “meaningful assessments of what students actually gained from their educations” in order to improve educational offerings and change for the better public perception of the college or university.
One can imagine other meaningful explorations for public relations officers. Writers, who presumably are thinkers and problem-solvers, might be involved in discussions about colleges’ changing missions and the concomitant changes in curricula and funding. We might help with research into public attitudes and civic needs. We can talk to members of the community, to alumni, students, and even faculty members.
Once writers are doing something of significance, our texts might become more consequential. Writing in our own voices and not in the voices of institutional behemoths, our expressive styles might become more engaging. Given more responsibility, we might stop disappointing. But first, before anything can change, those who make decisions that govern the lives of working writers and ultimately shape the public faces of universities have to relinquish their contempt for public relations. They need to put some faith in the skills of their writers, and in the affective and effective possibilities of writing. If academic executives want to put a halt to the repellent rhetoric that pours out of their public relations offices and sweeps away expanding circles of possible friends from their neighborhoods, states, their country, and the wider world, they will need to loosen the reins that hold us back. Just give us a chance, and we will delight.
Margaret Gutman Klosko is a former college public relations writer.