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Wind of change blowing through communication departments

UM to advertise itself as rebellious university

MAASTRICHT. The marketing and communication arm of Maastricht University is in for a change. “Student recruitment is something we are good at,” says director Fons Elbersen, “but we are vulnerable in reputation and crisis management. And not just there.”

Whether it will be an official reorganisation, is not clear yet; at any rate there will be no dismissals, Elbersen promises. Although positions may change here and there or people will be given a different position. Exactly how this is going to be done, has not yet been decided.

A huge bottleneck in “the M&C family” is its fragmentation. Because they are everywhere, the employees responsible for marketing (i.e. recruitment) or communication, or both. In every faculty, every service centre. Then there is the central M&C department on the ‘Berg’. Altogether there are 55 FTEs, divided across 74 people. All doing their own thing in their own units. The result, says Elbersen, is compartmentalisation, fragmentation, duplication and a cumbersome process of meetings in an attempt to bring everyone in line.

This can and must be improved, he feels. The weakness is not in student recruitment, which is a well-oiled machine. But, as stated in his presentation for the University Council, “crucial areas are underdeveloped”. M&C has too little time for a systematic, strategic approach. An example of that is the way in which the UM deals with publicity and other crises. Last year, there was a lot of fuss about animal tests on Labradors, before that there was a publication from the Reasonable Doubt project about the ‘Arnhem Villa Murder’ that led to considerable social to-do, and very recently psychologist professor Corine de Ruiter was in the limelight after a reprimand by the Dutch Institute for Psychologists. The way in which such matters are dealt with, is too dependent on coincidences; there is a lack of a clear communication strategy. Managers all have their own ideas about the best approach: for example, whether to speak to the press or not, and if you choose to, how, when, which media? When Elbersen started in August 2013, he entered a defensive organisation, one that preferred to keep the media at a distance, except if there was good news to report. “That is really no longer possible. Society asks questions, about matters of scientific integrity to expenses claimed by the Executive Board. I say that you should not wait for the questions, as managers you have to ensure that you are prepared. Our reputation management is weak. I’m not talking about putting on a show of friendliness, nobody believes that anymore, but about transparency, honesty.”

Internal communication is just as patchy, he feels. “Do you receive the information that you need as an employee in your position? Not at all. Targeted communication is impossible. Try to send an e-mail specifically to the academic staff. That is not possible.”

The M&C personnel will receive extra training where needed, including editorial skills. This is another weakness in some places, according to Elbersen. Where necessary, expertise will be sought from outside, temporarily or otherwise.

The organisation of and communication around events is much too uncoordinated, says Elbersen. “Events is a field of its own. Now you see that Open Days are organised by student recruiters, who have completely different skills.”

To combat compartmentalisation, Elbersen wants “well-equipped M&C departments in every faculty, heads of which also perform tasks for the UM as a whole”. From now on, the appointment of such heads will no longer be a matter for the faculty concerned alone; Elbersen, as director of M&C, will have an influence in this.

Elbersen thinks that less compartmentalisation also means that the UM will express a more coherent story to the outside world. “We - the deans, among others - are looking for the core values that connect us, something that you stand for as UM. This is also important for student recruitment. Because PBL and internationalisation are no longer very distinguishing. Thoughts are more along the lines of unique individuality. This is kind of a rebellious university. So then you are looking for uniquely individual students.”

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