A held back seat of learning

Given the town’s serious image problem, Luton University is spending more than any other to try to reduce its ‘PR deficit’. Failure could cost it more than its ad budget

Although marketing contributes its share to the nation’s stock of jargon and buzzwords, it’s not every day that a new item is added to the collection. So it is with special pleasure that this column records the birth of the “PR deficit”.

When the lexicon comes to be revised and updated, it will be recorded that the term was first used by Luton University head of admissions Steve Kendall. Explaining, or perhaps lamenting, that his employer was among the newer seats of learning, he said: “If you are the University of Luton in 1995, you have to advertise. There is a certain penalty in not having been around very long, and there is a PR deficit associated with Luton itself.”

Implicit in the coinage is the notion of a public relations optimum or ideal balance, which, when struck, puts an organisation or individual in perfect accord with popular taste and preference.

Both Mother Theresa and the Queen Mother have long enjoyed such an equilibrium. It is, however, given to few to be either saintly or benignly twinkling, at least not in perpetuity as these two ladies contrive. So a PR deficit is the rule rather than the exception.

A PR surplus is less rare, but just as undesirable. It occurs when an organisation or, more commonly, an individual enjoys popular esteem greatly beyond that which is merited. It is almost always short-lived and rapidly becomes a deficit, made worse by a public resentment at being hoodwinked. Tony Blair may eventually experience this phenomenon.

In most instances where surpluses occur, over zealous public relations practice is to blame. After all, the essence of PR is the belief that reputations can be created, manipulated and managed. By implication, so too can public opinion.

The trick, of course, is to get the balance right – without surplus or deficit. But that can entail an unacceptable measure of truth telling and the disagreeable possibility that public opinion has you weighed up just about right.

Could it be that there is a law at work here, not unlike the economic law of supply and demand?

In other words, what you are, do and say interacts with public opinion to establish a natural balance. This is your level of PR, like it or not. If that is the case, there is no such thing as a PR deficit or surplus, since the free market trade-off between what you are and how you are seen ensures an equilibrium.

It is a reluctance to accept the innate wisdom of the populace, not to mention its ability to smell a rat, that leads to the creation of comforting notions such as PR deficit.

This Government is notorious for falling into the self-deluding trap of forever proclaiming that its policies are right and it’s only the presentation that is wrong.

One suspects this is how Kendal sees Luton. In his uphill task to persuade students to spend the first three years of their adult life in the Bedfordshire town, he finds himself in competition with other places whose reputations rank higher. Rather than accepting that Luton is a dreary spot, which plainly it would be difficult for him to do, he falls back on the reassuring assumption that there is a gap between the reality and the perception – or a PR deficit.

Luton is known for once being at the centre of the hat making industry, a first division football team of no special distinction, a brewery, an airport and, most recently, for a riot. Oxford, too, has an industrial past, indifferent football team and a rough quarter. It also has a university, for which it is known. It may take time for Luton to change what it is famous for and acquire a reputation as a centre of learning.

But Kendall has no time, which is why Luton University is among the largest spenders on advertising and marketing in the world of higher education. If it fails to meet its contractual obligation to recruit at least 3,000 students this year, its funding will be reduced. That would be the first stage in a downward spiral, from which it might not recover.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Kendall is asking more of advertising and marketing than it can give. He has a town of no special distinction, a university whose brass plate has barely been screwed into the wall and a marketplace of potential students which, according to the University and College Admissions Service, is shunning higher education in droves.

Neither the most skillful copywriter or creative of creative directors, nay, not even the most wily of spin doctors from his bubbling cauldron of low cunning, can do much with a brief that requires Luton to be made a magnet for those who thirst after knowledge and understanding.

Students, of course, are a different matter. But their taste for ribald drunkenness and debauchery is more likely to be satisfied in our older cities, where there is an expertise in moral turpitude that bears the patina of centuries.

A lesser man than Kendall would be driven to desperate measures, but not he. Unlike some others, he refuses to meet his quotas by offering candidates the chance to switch to courses far removed from their original choices.

“We see no point in advising people to study artificial intelligence if they want to do medieval poetry,” he says. “You just end up with unhappy students.”

That, unlike the PR deficit, is a logic impossible to fault.

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