5 challenges for students' union comms


Were you a student? You may remember a blizzard of flyers and posters from ther Students' Union. But in a changing landscape where 95 per cent have smartphones one comms person tells of the challenges she faces. 

by Jo Walters

Students’ unions which are also known as guilds or associations are democratic student-led organisations based in every UK university and many further education colleges.

Students are automatically members of their students’ union - unless they chose to opt out - and unions provide a mixtures of services and opportunities for their members.

They typically co-ordinate services including commercial services like shops and bars, advice and representation on academic and welfare issues, campaigns to improve student life in areas such such as housing and mental health as well as sports clubs, societies and volunteering.

Students’ Unions are a great place to work as they’re vibrant organisations that work hard for their members but they also present a number of challenges for staff working in communications.

1. Ever-changing membership and elected leaders

Typically students are around for one to three years so it can be challenging to build a relationship with them before they graduate. Every year we have thousands of new students joining us at the start of the academic year and we have to work hard to make a great first impression and build on it during their relatively short time at university.

Students’ unions are led by a number of students elected by their peers every year who bring in fresh new ideas and this can mean adapting to changing priorities and viewpoints annually.

This influx of new people and new ideas helps drive innovation and stops your ideas and approaches getting too stale.

2. A diverse membership

There is no such thing as a ‘typical student’. The stereotype of an 18-year-old undergraduate who has just finished their A levels, lives in halls and likes socialising in the union bar is no longer accurate. We have large numbers of international students, older students, students living at home, student parents, students who don’t drink alcohol and postgraduate students.

This has forced students’ union communications staff to think about how to segment and target students based on their lifestyles. One size doesn’t fit all.

3. Limited resources

Some students’ unions don’t have any staff dedicated to marketing and communications. Many have only one or two staff members in this area and most have limited financial resources.

Working in students’ union communications can be quite a lonely experience but networking events and chatting on Twitter have helped bring people together to share ideas, show off, get help and just have other people to chat to about the work we do.

Working with limited resources means you have to make sure you’re doing the best you can with what you have - there’s no opportunity to be complacent. What we do have in abundance though are talented students and students have built apps, shot videos and acted as ambassadors for us as volunteers.

4. Digital-savvy membership with busy lives

Some unions have previously relied on putting up posters and expecting students to notice them as they wander around university buildings. Students have busy lives however and many don’t spend much time at university beyond their lectures and seminars. They’re bombarded with messages and it is hard to cut through this.

Posters don’t have the impact they may have once had and many of our members now expect to interact with us digitally. More than 95 per cent of our members at Sussex have a mobile phone with internet access yet it was only this year we managed to upgrade our election system to be usable on a smartphone.

We’re working hard to catch up and adapt our communications methods to suit our members.

5. Communicating the value we provide

Students’ unions have to work hard to demonstrate the value they bring, to students and to their parent institutions who are usually their principal funders. The role of communications in this is central - though I admit I’m biased - as it is through conversations with our members to gather input and provide feedback that we build relationships and show how central we are to student life.

This also applies to communications staff within unions who have to show their colleagues that the work we do in communicating with students is a vital part of being a democratic, student-focused organisation and not just spitting out pretty artwork or superficial advertising.

These challenges are not unique to students’ unions and I’ve learned a lot from local government and other public sector bodies. I’d love to hear your suggestions for meeting these challenges in the comments below or on Twitter - @jowalters

Jo Walters is Digital Engagement Manager at the University of Sussex Students’ Union and freelance digital and communications consultant.

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