Engage 2019: it is time to find our voice!

Dr Jo Heaton-Marriott, Director of Communications and Public Relations at Teesside University, reflects on her experience at the NCCPE Engage conference 2019
Dr Jo Heaton-Marriott on stage speaking at the NCCPE Engage conference 2019

At Engage 2019, I had the privilege of responding to Julia Unwin’s thought-provoking keynote on Civil Society Futures. As I took to the stage, I had three over-riding thoughts…firstly, how rare it is to hear such common sense and a clear call to action in a conference keynote; secondly, that when I agreed to do this, nobody told me my face would be on a giant screen, and finally, how can a community of professional ‘engagers’, have somehow managed to…well, not engage?

It has been preoccupying me for a while that we in Public Engagement Land are somewhat in a bubble of our own making. This was driven home by the stark realisation that many university Vice-Chancellors don’t see the relevance of their institutions to civil society. How can this be?

Surely VCs have noticed what we’ve been doing for the last decade?

We’ve embraced efforts to professionalise the PE sector, have championed frameworks to assess and embed our practice and invented an entire lexicon to describe that very special thing that we do. But in doing so, have we become gatekeepers? It appears we have failed to properly celebrate and share the colossal impact we have made. 

Why is this? I suspect it is a combination of the following:

Modesty: behold! We engage for mutual benefit, we are so careful to acknowledge the community partners and trailblazing individuals we work with, that we can’t possibly blow our trumpet and acknowledge our own contribution.

Defending our territory: what we do isn’t public relations, it isn’t just simple communications…(or outreach, or student recruitment, or…or…), so generally we haven’t turned the PR machine on. 

Time: PE roles are all consuming, many of us are spinning far too many plates to consider also drafting a project communications plan and there is simply no energy left to consider ‘comms’ before we move onto the next project. 

I’m going to take a risk here and say something I think our community of practice needs to hear. What we are doing is public relations. Our work is the very backbone of social justice, of civil society, of civic engagement- call it what you will. It is the very stuff that makes or breaks the reputation of a university, that demonstrates authenticity and that generates pride. 

While we’ve been quietly getting on with delivering positive social impact, other schools of thought have emerged that should be building on the foundations we’ve laid- but are not. We’ve not yet provided the case studies to underpin evidence-based policy making or shone a light on the myriad of ways our work is improving society at large. 

Society needs solutions and our universities need to prove their relevance. It is time for us to broadcast the worth of our work- and take ownership. The collective weight of our agency is huge and the evidence of our impact compelling.

We’ve been a quiet hope, and it is time to find our voice. 

Dr Jo Heaton-Marriott, Director of Communications and Public Relations, Teesside University. You can view her full speech here.

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