Why having a journalist on your board can be a risky business

13 May 2019, 6:00

You need more than stars in your eyes if you’re determined to have media glitterati on your board, cautions Ruth Sparkes

Is it really a good idea to have a journalist on your governing body?  Hopwood Hall College’s latest governor, Nazir Afzal, thinks it is (Profile, FE Week, May 3).

It’s an interesting question. It’s one I deliberated with senior managers very early in my FE career. I guess the answer from my point of view is, “it depends”.

It depends on why you would want a journalist on the board and what kind of journalist they are. 

On the face of it, it sounds like a great idea – having your local paper’s editor or a national journalist on the board could be really useful; they could help to trumpet your good news, advise you on actions and messages when the news isn’t so good, and put a word in their colleagues’ ears when the opportunity arises.

But, that’s an ideal world, not the real world.

Professional conflict of interest is almost certainly going to be an issue: crises and unwarranted breaking news.

By their very nature colleges are hubs for thousands of individuals, including teenagers and vulnerable people, and they deal with issues that, if they became public, wouldn’t be helpful to the institution or their students.

A few examples from my own PR “anthology” include drugs on campus, inappropriate lecturer and student behaviour (varying levels of activity, including unlawful), student death, dodgy achievement rates, lost student portfolios, affairs, IT misconduct and a whole shedload more. 

Journalists by their vocation and training are compelled to tell stories and to expose truths.

If I were a journalist rather than a PR, I’d be writing or broadcasting this juicy news rather than managing it.

And, colleges could be conflicted too. Will senior leaders have to be more selective with the information they share with a journalist governor?  Will open and frank discussions with governors be a little less open and frank?

If your reason for having a journalist in the board is for a different reason other than college promotion, then you might be on to a winner.

FE funding, social mobility, apprenticeship take-up and barriers to learning, lecturer pay, etc, are all important issues that FE grapples with every day – but generally the perception is that the wider “media doesn’t care about FE”. 

Every time I hear this well-worn record it sets my teeth on edge. But if you have a journalist on your board who can help to amplify FE’s national issues, and if your college is willing to have a national voice and take part in national activities, then it might be worth the risk. And, it is a risk.

Another option is to properly professionalise the role of PR and corporate affairs in your institution, drag it up the food chain and give the role proper credibility and responsibility. Employ someone who is suitably knowledgeable, experienced and qualified; they might be an ex-journalist or might not.

But if you absolutely must have some media glitterati on your board, instead of a jobbing journalist you might want to think about a different kind of influencer . . . you might want to consider what universities do; they often have celebrity or influential chancellors.

These include: Sir Brian May of Queen, the comedian Dawn French, the Hollywood actor Jeremy Irons, the ex-BBC Dragon Theo Paphitis, Great British Bake Off’s Prue Leith, the designer Zandra Rhodes and many others.

Universities also regularly bestow honorary degrees to VIPs, which can help to raise their profiles and help to “validate” them in a particular way.

But it’s still a risk – celebrities have celebrity lives and can go “off message” and cause embarrassment.  You might be lucky enough to engage with an absolutely faultless ambassador, but you must choose with caution – there’s a huge gulf between Belfast’s Queen’s University’s link with Hillary Clinton and the likes of Bedfordshire and Leeds universities, both of which bestowed honorary degrees on Jimmy Savile . . .

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