Career education colleges and universities serve a diverse population. Graduating high school seniors who aren’t interested in four years of student loan debt to earn a bachelor’s degree, single parents in need flexible class schedules to accommodate child care, veterans training for a career after their service ends and adult learners returning to the classroom after a long layoff are just some of the audiences schools need to reach.

In addition to a fragmented audience, marketers are struggling to keep up with the demands of student consumerism and to combat negative public perception. Many schools we work with feel that they are being unfairly lumped in with for-profit giants like Corinthian and ITT Tech, despite the fact that they are locally owned, community focused and training the workforce that employers need.

A proactive and ongoing public relations campaign is one way to fight back against the stigma in the sector, while speaking to the concerns of the student consumer. Here are five ways public relations can help change perceptions and attract students.

yti-shelterCreating a sense of community.

A primary selling point of vocational training is that students don’t have to complete a long list of prerequisites before diving in to the courses that interest them. Instead of four years on campus, programs last just one or two years, which is great when marketing for student consumerism. However, a negative side effect of these accelerated programs is the potential for students to miss out on creating bonds with each other outside of the classroom.

Public relations helps spread the word about all of the fundraisers, blood drives and spirit events happening on campus and allows students to take pride in knowing that they are doing more than just going to class.

Putting instructors front and center.

The best advocates for any organization are its employees. Instructors bring real-world industry experience to the classes they teach and news reporters and editors often look for experts with the same type of experience. A good PR pro will make the connection.

By positioning faculty as experts in their fields, a school can gain credibility and publicity, which leads to trust and interest among perspective students in the age of student consumerism.

Leading the conversation.

Savvy school leadership knows that they have to prepare for bad news. Whether it’s at their own school – an unhappy student makes allegations of substandard practices to the media – or somewhere else in the sector – a competitor files for bankruptcy leaving students locked out – it is only a matter of time.

That is when your reputation becomes invaluable. If your local press knows that a school is active, engaged and responsive, they are much more likely to have the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Investing in a PR campaign to tell the good news associated with the school also pays dividends when there is bad news.

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Bragging about your students.

Reporters want to tell good news. They are constantly searching for inspirational stories to share. But they’re also doing more with less. Newsroom budgets are shrinking and reporters are asked to cover additional stories, shoot their own pictures, engage with their audience on social media and more.

Similarly, the faculty and staff at the career schools we work with are wearing multiple hats and juggling various responsibilities. There simply isn’t always enough time in the day to identify students, research reporters, pitch stories and follow up. But that’s what a PR pro lives for.

Employing a person whose sole responsibility is public relations, either through an agency or in house, creates a point person responsible for the entire process. They will find stories like overcoming medical adversity, raising money for cleft palate surgeries, and working with the SPCA, and get them covered. Stories like these show the world that smart and hardworking students attend career schools and that it’s not a destination for those without other options.

Getting social.

When trying to reach a diverse audience in an age of student consumerism, it’s often easier to go to them instead of trying to get them to come to you. If you engage in conversation with your audience on the platforms they are already using, they will listen. Most schools now view a Facebook page as a necessity but as the social media landscape evolves, proactive schools are engaging their audiences (particularly the younger demographics) on Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter.