A Portrait of the Modern University Communicator

Connect-universum 2012
Author: Pomati P.

Annotation:

A market-maniac? a social networker? a news-seller? hooked on tradition or
projected to innovative fields? The European University communicator has started to reconsider his/her role, his/her skills, his/her functions after the launch of the “Europe 2020” agenda, supported by many ministerial or institutional declarations which have priced communication as a strategic focus to obtain the general and complex goals. In this contribution we will try to find some new perspectives for this job which seems to widen its
horizons in the multitasking society we live in.


Topic of report: A Portrait of the Modern University Communicator [1]

1. An overview of European Higher Education at present.

The European Higher Education Area (EHEA) was launched in March 2010, in coincidence with the tenth anniversary of the Bologna Process, Between 1999 and today every effort was focused on creating this Area through the various processes of harmonization of the education systems of the Member States.

During these years, eight conferences of European ministers responsible for higher education were celebrated (Bologna 1999, Prague 2001, Berlin 2003, Bergen 2005, London 2007, Louvain-la-Neuve 2009, Budapest-Vienna 2010, Bucharest 2012) and declarations or communiqués on the gradual progress of the work were signed[2]. The conference in Budapest-Vienna and its relative
Declaration concluded the first phase of the Bologna Process and established the grounds for the second round on the wavelength of the five ambitious objectives of EU “Europe 2020” strategy: employment, innovation, education, social inclusion and climate/energy[3].

The Budapest-Vienna Declaration and the goals of “Europe 2020” were taken and expanded, in terms of higher education, by the conference of European universities which was organised by the European University Association (EUA) and took place in Aarhus in April 2011. This conference discussed the centrality of nurturing greater numbers of talented individuals to the mission of universities and to securing Europe’s future as a dynamic competitive global region. In the context of the present financial and economic crisis, European Commission President Josй Manuel Barroso
told conference participants that universities have a key role to play in helping Europe go through and exit the financial crisis. He remarked that the Commission’s plans for fiscal consolidation have singled out education, research and innovation as “growth friendly expenditure” and also as a key
element in upcoming discussions on the EU budget post 2013[4].

According to Aarhus Declaration (“Investing Today in Talent for Tomorrow”), higher education institutions are:

  • a crucial platform for the future of Europe;
  • motors for economic delivery;
  • the starting point to achieve the objectives of “Europe 2020”;
  • places where to address complex problems that need innovative solutions;
  • an ensemble of institutions which needs long-term investments, financial sustainability and sufficient public funding;
  • a shared place, with a shared commitment and added value to accomplish.

After setting this complex perspective, Aarhus Declaration describes its strategic action agenda for the decade 2011-2020. The issues range from widening the access to developing distinctive research portfolios; from mobility to employability; from transparency to quality; from internationalization to financial sustainability. Each action should be supported by clear communication strategies, as a vital strength to promote dialogue, to engage a variety of stakeholders at different levels, to ensure impact on society, to disseminate knowledge and messages in their entirety and in a qualified, well-coordinated and sustainable way.

During the decade that had led to the complete realization of the Bologna Process, official documents never talked about communication. It seems that Ministers were happy to agree to major changes, yet gave no thought about how these would be explained and communicated to the press and the public. It also seems that communications have failed at local, national and international levels. Universities, rectors’ conferences and associations alike have not been able to develop and deliver a coordinated, coherent and cohesive communication strategy.

The first document which openly said that coordinated communication efforts were needed was EUA’s “Trends 2010”[5]. In the same year Professor Jean-Marc Rapp, the former president of EUA, was invited at the annual Conference of European University Public Relations and Information Officers Association (EUPRIO) in Stresa, and stressed how important it was to move beyond sharing a toolbox of techniques, concentrating simple measurements and technical
aspects, towards working on defining a precise vision of what we expect from Higher Education in the future. Defined and well thought out communication strategies and a skilled communication staff will be crucial if we are to play our part in disseminating knowledge to benefit society as a whole.

2. A sketch of the current European University Communicator.

Since the first days of my presidency at EUPRIO, one of my objectives has always been to get clarity on the role of the European University Communicator, as I had realized that only vague ideas were wandering on this subject. Despite training courses, lifelong learning programmes, international workshops, there are still a few professionals who think in some compartmentalised ways, who are only interested in fancy websites, social media tools and “easy-to-sell” laboratory stories, and continue to work in the same way they did years ago, without feeling the need to
broaden their increasingly limited areas of work. Through EUPRIO’s network I tried to gather the most relevant information to draw a portrait of the European University Communicator.

This professional is usually a woman (75-80%) in her late 30s with a degree; she works full-time, was hired after competition or selection and gets a low salary. Northern and Eastern countries tend to recruit younger people (sometimes in their late 20s); in the countries with a long-lasting University tradition (France, United Kingdom, Italy and Germany) the age gap is larger. We can find lots of seniors who had the opportunity to build their careers in a department of communications, and are close to retirement (55-60 years old).

Almost everybody holds a bachelor degree or some higher education background. The typologies of degrees are very different, ranging from economics to law, literature, political science, information technology and so on. Surprisingly, few people hold a degree in communication sciences, but this is due to the relatively recent development of this disciplines in the European higher education system. Most employees have received some training in communication and a few have attended specialization classes.

After a period when external recruitment was quite usual, today the free-lancers are not so many. Communicators are full-time workers and have no other job; most of them respond directly to the heads of their organizations (Rector/President, CEO, Director General and so on). Officers who refer to heads of departments that have nothing to do with communication are very rare
now, although it’s not so easy to kick out bad habits.

The salary is low everywhere and without a meaningful average. Wages depend on the cost of living in each country, on the career annual increments and on productivity bonuses; they range from a minimum of 500 Euros that a Polish junior communicator receives monthly to a maximum of 5,000 Euros paid to a director of communications in the Scandinavian countries, which are notoriously expensive.

When we consider the tags which define positions, titles and profiles, we may abandon all hope, as they are different from country to country. This confusion keeps on when considering the forest of names used to define a communication office. What we find under the communication umbrella is everything and nothing: a big basket where Presidents and Rectors may throw
everything.

Furthermore, we must note a general lack of human resources employed in communication units. Teams with more than four people are quite rare and they have often to work on several tasks (media relations, marketing, events, etc.). When comparing countries, the most evident differences appear when we come to budget and strategic guidelines. Budget changes hugely from
country to country, from private institutions to public institutions. The lowest budget allowed is around 20,000 Euros (Poland, Italy, Greece); it seems quite impossible to beat the record of 1,000,000 Euros reported by some Swedish and Dutch universities. The average budget flows between 150 and 250,000 Euros and is not sufficient to accomplish all the goals assigned.

Budget and low salaries are not the only concerns of University communicators. In some countries there is still some cultural resistance to acknowledge the “power” of communication. This is probably due to the “double-heart” of Universities: the academic side and the administrative side. It goes without saying that the latter can hardly have the same fields of action that the former has.

Lastly, communicators complain about the incredible variety of responsibilities they have to face, with no clear strategic vision. The goals are often decided outside the communication department, by Rectors or Directors, without asking the professionals’ opinions. Hence, the absence of communication plans, the practice of external recruitment, the lack of human and financial resources[6].

So, who is guilty? the heads? the system? the global crisis? Or, rather, the university communicators themselves, who do not share a common idea of communication? Probably this is the essence of the matter we are arguing on. It’s not clear enough that University communicators are not there to sell courses, to set up red tape, to provide the cushion between the university and the outside world, to deal with complaints and that they are certainly not responsible for operating call-centres.

What people don’t understand is that the university communicator is a true knowledge worker, a strategist who works in knowledge networks where institutional communication is set[7]. On these grounds I will try to focus on the ontological essence of the forthcoming European University Communicator, able to cope with the guidelines of “Europe 2020”: a “Digital neo-humanist”, a “Wounded Healer”, a “Dionysian plurilingualist”.

3. The 2020 European University Communicator.

3.1. A “Digital Neo-Humanist”

According to a quotation of Elisabetta Zuanelli, a famous Italian linguist, institutional communication is a “system of behaviours to pursue a specific aim, which is the proper functioning of the institution.” In other words, communication is a whole where each element is connected and interactive with others; it is a system of sequences of coordinated, intentional, conscious and finalized actions. Goals must be shared by everybody, understood by everybody and we must all have access to the tools we need[8].

A higher education institution, therefore, is a system of behaviours organized by offices, consisting of interactive people with specific social roles, of actions and communication materials, of flows and messages. These «units» are arranged hierarchically: each level has a purpose and given skills and each level refers to the one immediately above and below itself. The institution works well if each unit is aware of the interactions between itself and all the other units of the system. Shortly, if the communication is well organized, the university works. Of course, this definition gets rid of bizarre applications, inappropriate roles, odd tools, which reduce communicators to acrobats: spokespersons, journalists, marketing specialists, graphic designers, webmasters…

The communicator should be one of the key figures in the university, because he/she is the one who can understand the nuances and messages that pass from one to another and make them work; he/she is the one who understands the hierarchy of decision-making, he/she is the one who can write a communication plan, which is not a list of things to do, but a vital strategic document which enables the institution to deliver its mission.

The knowledge workers, then, are the holders of contents which have to be developed digitally in order to offer appropriate services for diverse audiences. Communicators can’t develop communications strategies if they don’t understand the nuances, networks, processes, routines and their technological management. They can’t develop information services, assistance, counselling to students if they don’t truly understand the dynamics of external and internal communication.

For university communication it is the time of some “digital neo-humanism”. Today we’ve got the link between the period in which liberal arts and mechanical civilization began to work together thanks to the insights of Leonardo da Vinci, and the contemporary world, in which liberal arts are created and channelled digitally. We live in the world of “virtual artifacts”, where a book, a drawing, a piece of music become an e-book, e-photo, a “mp3”[9]. The university communicator must be up-to-date, but without making a Copernican revolution. Humanism puts the person at the centre of the world: the person, who declares his dignity, his liberty, his capacity. Rules no longer matter; what matters is the critical consciousness of the human condition. Humanists claimed the value of eloquence, of the “verbum” of the words, of the speech. This then is the modern university communicator of today: a neo-humanist, a knowledge worker, who considers
language to be the foundation for all his work.

We live in a world that is fast, interconnected and overwhelmed by the cult of the image. We put techniques and tools at the centre of our world and we forget people. To paraphrase Edwin Schlossberg, true interactivity is not just about clicking on icons or downloading files, it’s about encouraging communication between people and building relationships[10]. Putting people where they belong, at the centre of the system, requires a radical change in how we view communication. It means returning to the essence of things, taking a step back, leaving hierarchies and devoting ourselves to the essential.

3.2. A “Wounded Healer”

Today university communicators find themselves in the strange position of having changed how they thought about things whilst remaining in a context which hasn’t changed yet. Or, a context which has changed for the worse, despite the solemn declarations of European Ministers and Rectors. 2009, 2010, 2011 were crucial years for Universities; financial cutbacks had decimated the budgets for many higher education institutions and the situation has not improved yet. Communicators were in the middle of perhaps the most important crisis facing their sector.

The outrageous point is that, when budgets are cut, communication is the first to fall under the blade. The effects of these cuts have soon escalated: poor, unprofessional, scattered communication has led to no visibility in the media, to enrollment’s falling, to uncontrolled dissemination of the news. The paradox is that, though realizing that communication is fundamental for Universities, money still remains at a zero level. That’s why Rectors, Presidents, Directors are coming back to communicators asking for miracles.

This situation leads me to go beyond the figure of the “digital neo-humanist”, and to take a look at mythology and at Jungian archetypes, focusing on the myth of Chiron[11]. Among the uncultured, wild, lusty Centaurs, Chiron was the only one to be kind, civilized and intelligent. He was sired by Kronos, the Titans’ king, when he had taken the form of a horse and impregnated the nymph Phylira. He grew up with an immense knowledge of medicine, healing arts, astrology and music. His cave on Mount Pelion soon became an academy for the most important cultural heroes seeking Chiron’s education: Asclepius, Aeneas, Theseus, Achilles, Jason and so on, according to Pindar, Hesiod, Homer and Theocritus. Being the son of Kronos, Chiron was immortal; despite this, he sacrificed his life allowing Zeus to exchange his immortality for the life of Prometheus, therefore allowing mankind to obtain the use of fire[12].

The story of the kind centaur led the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung to develop the archetype of the Wounded Healer[13]. It is the person who has gone through suffering, and by transcending it, he is led to a path of service, he becomes a source of great wisdom and inspiration for others. Today Chiron can be seen as a gateway to new domains of experience and knowledge: a traveler, a messenger who can act as a bridge to impossible missions for some charitable purpose, a problem solver, a therapist, a shaman, an initiator, a hero, a martyr, the image of Jesus, a priest, a philosopher… but his wound is destined to keep opened and never to recover.

Thanks God, the university communicator’s destiny is not to suffer for the rest of his/her life. The wounds should be considered as the gateway to knowledge and the wounded man is intimately connected with the healer. Jung said: «The doctor is effective only when he himself is conscious that he can fall sick. Only the wounded physician heals. But when the doctor wears his
personality like a coat of armor, he has no effect»[14]. The Wounded Healer is the teacher who is able to self-empower others to trust themselves to the extent that they finally give themselves permission to feel that which has been too fearfully painful for the emotional body to cope with and feel[15].

Communicators have the ability and perseverance to go beyond issues, problems and troubles and their job has become something similar to the Wounded Healer’s therapies. They provide helpful, tangible, positive responses to Rectors to enable them to solve problems. Because of this they themselves are part of the wounds, they experience the effects of them, they overcome them and they can extract the good from them.

Communicators can offer so much, a portfolio of professional skills, contacts to share, the ability to sustain productive relationships with diverse audiences, to speak in public, to solve problems, to manage crises. In exchange, they need to be given respect for the job that they do and a recognition of their role. Respect and recognition are considered fundamentally important across all cultures.

3.3. The “Dionysian Plurilingualist”

I must say that Professor Jean-Marc Rapp, former president of EUA, was a sort of healer of the University communicators’ wounds, during the EUPRIO Conference that I mentioned before. In the crucial part of his keynote speech he said that a modern University needs a communication strategy and highly qualified experts to communicate and disseminate this strategy in a way which
supports the interests of the university as a whole. And the University system itself has the same needs.

Our universities need excellent communicators who can cope with the fact that objectives can only be met if they are continuously revisited and revamped. Communicators have to interact with and interpret their not very explicit environments. They have to select the right audiences for the right messages, negotiate these messages and choose appropriate settings and situations. They
need to understand what they want to achieve and be able to utilise the most effective keys, norms, genres and instrumentalities[16]. They have to put in place relationship technologies, procedures and routines and ensure that they interrogate knowledge every day time.

This won’t be easy, for sure. Many hindering factors will invariably come up: distances, budgets, the limitations of ICTs, opposition of senior staff, internal conflicts, generational differences, lack of motivation. But is their force so destructive? Do any of these really have the power to prevent
communicators even from starting to work this way?

According to Jay A. Rubin, Universities now look for communicators who are not only fluent in traditional academic language, but are also able to utilise the language of social media, so necessary in attracting students, grants, partnerships and positive media coverage. Communicators must also have the gravitas to become trusted advisors to rector, deans and others senior staff. the communicator desired by universities as a “plurilingualist”[17].

A plurilingualist has competences in more than one “language” and can switch between them according to the circumstances they find themselves in. He/she is able to switch between the words and the tones he uses, he/she adapts his/her language to suit diverse and numerous stakeholders, he/she prepares the same messages in a number of totally different versions. Plurilingualism and pluriculturalism are our ordinary approaches to how we interact with and react to others as complex beings.

As we learn from pragmalinguists, like John Langshaw Austin or John Searle, we normally use language to act socially with others using linguistic acts. These acts consist of an illocutionary force: if we ask “How's that salad doing? Is it ready yet?" as a way of («politely») enquiring about the salad, our intent may be in fact to make the waiter bring the salad. So, the illocutionary force of the utterance is not an inquiry about the progress of salad construction, but a demand that the salad be brought. Austin talks about the use of performative verbs which we use in the first person to actually perform an action, i.e. saying “I apologise” performs the action of apologising. Searle includes other indicators, such as mood, the order we use words, stress and intonation contour, punctuation and so on[18].

“Force” is the keyword used by the two authors: the pragmatic, intentional, oriented, targeted strength by which our utterances gain power and meaning. It’s a deep-down, visceral energy that powers mental processes. It’s the will of life, l’élan vital, as French say.

Friedrich Nietzsche claims that humans possess the art of communication in the same way we possess the instinct of understanding. As humans we understand, act and react because of our “primordial unity”, which revives the so-called “Dionysian nature” of humans: «In the Dionysian state the whole affective system is excited and enhanced, so that it discharges all its means of expression at once and drives forth simultaneously the power of representation, imitation, transfiguration, transformation and every kind of mimicking and acting»[19].

Through the Dionysian mysteries the Hellene guaranteed himself «the eternal return of life, the future, promised and hallowed in the past, the triumphant ‘Yes’ to life beyond all death and change»[20].

Thanks to the presence of this Dionysian factor, Tragedy, the apex of artistic creation, could be invented. Sophocles’ works are the highest realization of this genre. Different from Kant’s idea of sublime, which needs critical distance, the Dionysian element demands a closeness of experience.
Critical distance, Socratic rationalism separates the human being from his closest emotions; the Dionysian magnifies the human being.

It could be argued that communicators could be considered the sons of the opposite to the Dionysian, that is the Apollonian[21]. According to some linguists, the Apollonian element denotes the wish to describe, to create order, especially with unfamiliar information or new experience[22]. This point is open to question. The image of Dionysus refers to creativity, to the vital spark taken in its most productive and effective angle[23].

A university communicator should be a sort of a “Dionysian plurilingualist”, who is able to use his skills and techniques, but cannot get rid of that delicate art of comprehension, that feeling for nuances, that capacity of seeing through brick walls. Communicators need to be managers, but they don’t need to abandon creativity and, why not, poetry. Society still needs poetry. Art and poetry, different instruments, but both providing a path to knowledge because both tend to the discovery of the relationships between contradictory truths of reality. A poet sees what the others cannot see; usually he sees beauty.

References

1. This contribution reflects and synthetizes some speeches that the Author, current president of the European University Public Relations and Information Officers Association (EUPRIO), delivered in various conferences which took
place in Aveiro, Paris, Stresa, Salamanca, Prague and Poznań in the years 2009-2012. See, ex multis, V. ÉLOY and P. POMATI, EUPRIO. A 25-Year Success Story, Atelijeur PůDA, Prague 2011, pp. 123-126. These thoughts should be considered in progress and would be implemented – and probably closed – during the XXIV Annual Conference of EUPRIO in Gothenburg, September 2012.
2. The texts are available on the website dedicated to the EHEA: see www.ehea.info/articledetails.aspx?ArticleId=43
3. See ec.europa.eu/europe2020/index_en.htm
4. See www.eua.be/News/11-05-13/EUA_publishes_Aarhus_Declaration_an_action_plan_for_universities_developing_talent_in_Europe.aspx
5. See www.eua.be/eua-work-and-policy-area/building-the-european-higher-education-area/trends-ineuropean-higher-education/trends-vi.aspx
6. These data are based on comparisons between experiences of professionals among EUPRIO and on reports of national associations that regularly analyse the communication structure in Universities of their own country (such as AICUN in Italy, AIK in Sweden, ARCES in France, AUGAC in Spain, HEERA in the UK, LAMIDA in Lithuania, PIO and BH in Germany, SUPRIO in Switzerland, VONU in the Netherlands, etc.).
7. E. ZUANELLI, “Comunicazione istituzionale, IT e la babele digitale ovvero il consumismo verbale tecnologico contro l’acculturazione informatica”, in Comunicazione e innovazione digitale, 3 (2007), pp. 219-220.
8. See E. ZUANELLI (ed.), Manuale di comunicazione istituzionale. Teoria e applicazioni per aziende e amministrazioni pubbliche, Colombo, Rome 2000, pp. 28 ff.
9. See E. ZUANELLI, “Il neo-umanesimo digitale: nuove professionalità nell’economia della conoscenza”, in Comunicazione e innovazione digitale, 1 (2008), pp. 15-21.
10. E. SCHLOSSBERG, Interactive Excellence. Defining and Developing New Standards for the Twenty-First Century, Ballantine, New York 1998
11. Particular thanks to Eugenio Torre, famous psychiatrist and full professor at Università del Piemonte Orientale, Italy, who has given me precious suggestions on this subject.
12. See C.J. GROESBECK, “The archetypal image of the wounded healer”, in Journal of Analytical Psychology 20 (1975), pp. 122-145 and partic. 124-127. For the myth, see K. KERÉNYI, Die Mythologie der Griechen, any edition.
13. C.G. JUNG, Memories, dreams, reflections, ed. by A. Jaffé, transl. by R. & C. Winston, Pantheon Books, New York 1963 (1961).
14. ibidem, p. 134
15. On the myth of the Wounded Healer see also the perspective of H.J.M. NOUWEN, The wounded healer: Ministry in contemporary society, Doubleday, New York 1979 (1972)
16. D. HYMES, “Models of the Interaction of Language and Social Life”, in J.J.GUMPERZ and D. HYMES (eds.), Directions in Sociolinguistics. The Ethnography of Communication, Blackwell, Oxford-New York 1986 [1972], pp. 35-71.
17. J.A. RUBIN, “Wanted: a Multi-PR linguist”, in Comunicazione digitale, 5-6 (2010), pp. 41-46: www.icomit.it/pub/2010/05/04rubin.pdf
18. J.L. AUSTIN, How to do things with words, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1975; J. SEARLE, “The Classification of Illocutionary Acts”, in Language in Society, 5.1 (1976), pp. 1-23.

19. F. NIETZSCHE, The Twilight of Idols, X, 10. (cf ID., The Birth of Tragedy, passim)
20. ibidem, XI, 4.
21. A. DEL CARO, “Dionysian Classicism, or Nietzsche’s Appropriation of an Aesthetic Norm”, in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec., 1989), pp. 589-605.
22. See G. ZUCKERMANN, “’Etymythological Othering’ and the Power of ‘Lexical Engineering’ in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. A Socio-Philo(sopho)logical Perspective”, in T. OMONIYI and J.A. FISHMAN (eds.), Explorations in the Sociology of Language and Religion, John Benjamins, Amsterdam 2006, pp. 237-258 and partic. 244-245.
23. J. PORTER, The Invention of Dionysus: An Essay on The Birth of Tragedy, Stanford University Press, 2000.

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