CAUT's public awareness campaign - Our Universities, Our Future - was a central topic of discussion at CAUT's Council meeting in April.
David Robinson, CAUT's new director of public policy and communications, provided Council with a preview of the plans for the Sept. 14 official launch of the campaign. The campaign's objective is to raise public awareness of the impact of public funding cuts, tuition increases and the increasing commercialization of Canada's colleges and universities. The national launch will be followed by a major conference on Oct. 29 - 31 on commercialization of post-secondary education, and by a federal lobby day on Nov. 18.
Turning to a discussion of media and communications strategy, Robinson walked delegates through a number of public opinion polls and noted some key challenges CAUT and its associations will need to address.
Robinson said the first challenge is that CAUT is relatively unknown both in media circles and among the general public. To address this, CAUT is in the process of developing a comprehensive media list, issuing regular op-eds to press outlets, and providing new publications and background information to key journalists and columnists.
Robinson also noted that, with few exceptions, the mainstream media will likely be hostile to calls for increased core funding of universities and colleges, and for a reversal in the commercialization of education and research. Anticipating the reaction from the conservative press and responding quickly to criticism will be essential.
Following the presentation, local and provincial associations received a crash course in media relations. In workshops, Council delegates were given a fictitious press release in which their "provincial" government announced plans to eliminate the tenure system. Working under a tight deadline, each workshop was given the task of preparing a news statement to be delivered to the media in response to the government's announcement.
Each workshop selected spokespersons to conduct a simulated news conference -- complete with reporters and photographers -- before all the delegates in Council chambers.
Bob Rupert, professor of journalism at Carleton University, and Gail Lem, former Globe and Mail reporter and currently Vice-President, Media, of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, played the role of aggressive reporters. Vincent Mosco, professor of communications at Carleton University, and Tom O'Brien, national rep in the communications department of the Canadian Labour Congress, provided comment on each news conference.
Delegates learned some important lessons in dealing with reporters: try to illustrate your argument with a concrete example, be as concise as possible, try to come up with quotable statements, and never argue with a journalist -- they will always have the last word.
At the end of the presentations, the journalists and commentators offered some parting words of advice.
"You have to recognize that many reporters may be sympathetic to your goals," said Gail Lem. "But you also have to put yourself in their shoes, and understand the constraints they face. Given the degree of media ownership concentration in Canada, many reporters will self-censor their work for fear of offending an owner who may be the only game in town."
Bob Rupert emphasized the need for CAUT and its associations to communicate to the media in a more accessible manner.
"This doesn't mean you have to 'dumb-down' your message," Rupert insisted. "In fact, it means you have to be smarter at how you communicate."
Tom O'Brien agreed, and underlined the need for university and college teachers to shake off their elitist image: "The general perception out there is that you folks are out of touch and elitist. That's why it's important in your communications work that you don't add fuel to this stereotype by speaking in broad theoretical terms. Use concrete examples and real stories. Show people that you really care emotionally about the issue."
"In developing our overall communications strategy, it's vital that we respect the public," added Vincent Mosco. "That means we can't simply dismiss their concerns about taxes or the shrinking size of their pay cheques. We have to recognize those concerns as legitimate and make the case that these problems will get worse if we don't fund education now."