HR and Communications - Perfect Partners

By Deborah Mattock, Director of HR, Marketing and International Relations at the University of Northampton
08 June 2021

As Director of HR, Marketing and International Relations I think my role (and title!) is pretty unique in our sector. I’m often asked questions as to how these sometimes isolated areas fit together and why the University of Northampton (UON) has adopted this approach. I have a long and short answer to this. 

I’ll be kind to UCEA blog readers and provide the short answer! This being that the brand that attracts students is the brand that attracts staff – the vision that students and staff buy into – in our case, a university that is super supportive, future focused and socially innovative. It is vital that not only our students but also our staff become our ambassadors, enhance the experience with us as we build loyalty and pride. But effective communications, internal and external, are key to engagement and wellbeing – and that is if you are a student or a member of staff. At UON our internal communications and PR team sit within marketing and for this, I hope that I am the envy of my HR colleagues across the sector. Whilst some might query the match between student focussed marketing and HR, there can be no doubt that HR and communications fit hand in glove. 

As all of us continue to prepare and adjust for returning to working in a post-Covid environment we are often reflecting on the past 15 months, I think everyone agrees that excellent communication has been the golden thread running through your critical incident management too. When problems have occurred, it is normally when communications have gone wrong in some way or form. I cannot overstate how much of an advantage it has been to have managed and led our communications. During times of change and uncertainty, and what will hopefully be a once in a life-time pandemic, solid communications to staff and students are absolutely critical. But I think we at UON have had the added advantage of making the most of effective communications when we moved to our new campus. Consistent and clear messages to students, staff, stakeholders, residents and just about everyone else in our corner of the country were vital and remain ongoing, despite the main move taking place four years ago.

What I continue to learn about communications is that it is not rocket science – communications need to be clear, digestible, timely and consistent. Try to develop a single source of truth because universities have the potential to allow rumours – often damaging – to spread. My mantra is communicate, communicate, communicate. That is not to say overload everyone with information but find ways to deliver consistent messages over multiple-channels so that all have easy access to the most important information. It is also important that good communications can help your staff to be prepared when dealing with students. Find a virtual space so staff can easily see what has been communicated to students – in a fast-changing environment with the speedy devices and channels to match this means they are not caught unaware. 

Working in HR we know that part of the art of good communication is to also listen carefully. Staff are most engaged when they are being heard and not just drowning in one-way communications. At UON we tried to balance this with regular virtual face-to-face staff exchanges, twice weekly (UNIfy) newsletters, and a staff portal, where concerns and questions are also answered or addressed. Couple this with ‘Thank you Thursday’, where staff can leave thank-you messages for other colleagues which are then shared weekly across the University and via a closed staff facebook page for further coverage.   

Just under a decade ago UON saw putting together HR and marketing under one umbrella as an organisational innovation. Perhaps it is time that innovation became the norm. I urge all HR Directors out there to put together a case for communications to be part of your remit. Hopefully we won’t have another pandemic to deal with but trust me, as we transition to our new normal you won’t regret it!