The role of communication messages and public relations strategies in the higher education "public good" debate : a study of four public research universities
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This study examined the role and function of public relations in public higher education institutions by focusing on the messages being communicated by four public research-oriented universities. This study was designed to determine if and how these universities communicate their public good responsibility and how that communication is perceived by two constituent groups—higher education reporters and state legislators. The researcher used two qualitative methods: thematic analysis and in-depth/elite interviews. Thematic analysis was used to analyze the universities’ mission and vision statements, strategic plans, legislative appropriations requests, presidential speeches, and 800 press releases (200 from each of four universities), to determine whether references to the public good were either present or absent in messages the universities disseminated during 2006 and 2007. In-depth/elite interviews were used to obtain the perspectives of the chief public relations officers at each of the four public research-oriented universities about their public relations strategies and communication goals. Higher education reporters covering these respective institutions and members of the legislature in positions of leadership on committees involved with higher education policy and funding issues were also interviewed to understand their perceptions about the universities. This study found the following 24 references to public good: the core concepts of research, teaching and public service; the benefits the universities create as engines of economic development; diversity; the recruitment and retention of faculty; the university as a center for arts, entertainment and cultural events; faculty and student achievement; student career enhancement; and institutional prestige, among others. The study demonstrated that public research-oriented universities are using public relations strategies and techniques to construct and distribute messages to their key constituents about the benefits they provide to the State and its citizens. Major findings also include the observation that higher education reporters cover higher education as a statewide beat which focuses on the state’s two flagship or Tier 1 universities—the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University and the institutions in the reporters respective cities. In addition, the higher education reporters write about “issues” related to higher education rather than institutions per se. The study also found that State Legislators only recognize the two Tier 1 institutions as research institutions and their perspectives about these institutions are driven by how these universities are funded.
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