Thomas tells us about the challenges of communicating with a student population of 15,000 and why communications shouldn’t be a one-way conversation.
What are your main responsibilities and goals as Student Communications Manager?
I joined Sussex last year when this position was created. The university, like many others, had identified a need to communicate in a more engaging way with their current student population. From the outset it has been clear that we needed to make a greater effort to communicate with current students properly and in rich and varied ways, throughout their time at university.
What are the main challenges in communicating with a student body on such a large scale?
We’re a growing university with just under 15,000 students, which is expected to rise over the next few years. With an increased student population we have to be really clever and diverse in the types of communications we deliver. There has to be a mix: user-generated content from students themselves; practical guidance for things like exam timetables and library closures; and crisis communication.
As with many universities, Sussex’s international population is increasing, so we have to think about that aspect of the audience and how they’re going to engage with our content. It’s important not to just have a one-way conversation: we want students to engage with what we put out, answer our questions and ask questions in return.
What are the main platforms you use to communicate with students?
I would say around 75% of what we do is online. We have a number of student-centred social media accounts and we send a fortnightly student bulletin, comprising a collection of news stories, upcoming events and blogs. We have a mobile app which is incredibly widely used across the student population. We’re keen to really start utilising the app and begin to use instant messaging and push notifications – I think those mediums are where university communications is inevitably headed.
At the end of last year I set up the SussexStudents blog, which is written by students for students – often study abroad students blogging and vlogging about what they’re getting up to in Hong Kong or China. That blog in particular has had a lot of readers and students are really engaging with it. It’s almost gone against the grain because the statistics of students reading blogs has gone down elsewhere.
How did you come to work in higher education?
By a left-field route. I did politics at university and was in the process of starting a Masters when, unfortunately, my brother passed away. I was knocked for six for a few years. I fell into youth mentoring and worked on some tough council estates in Portsmouth. It was very, very challenging but I did secretly enjoy it. I then got a job as a youth mentor at Chichester College. I worked there for five years before I decided to do what I’d always wanted and retrain as a journalist.
I went back to my old job as a youth mentor and, from 2012 to 2014, I worked really hard on my journalism. I didn’t have a day off in 2013 because I was doing work experience at a local newspaper and spending the evenings writing for whichever publication would take my work. After a while one of my articles was picked up by the Huffington Post and got a lot of views, and I started writing for them directly as a result. I eventually returned to Chichester College as Press and Communications Officer.
How has your experience in youth mentoring informed your work in higher education?
Most people come into communications via journalism, but they don’t always have experience of writing for young people. I think my mentoring experience has helped me understand what makes young people tick and what techniques we can use to make sure they’re engaged. A lot of people malign young people for having a lack of attention, but I don’t think that’s accurate. I think young people are intrepid and in-tune with what’s going on in the world around them. It’s important to have student communications that mirror that.
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