Why a business school’s alumni network is key to PR goals

Maintaining good alumni relationships pays off. Stephanie Mullins, Associate Director at specialist business education PR consultancy BlueSky Education, explores how it significantly boosts communications efforts. 

When talking about PR, it’s often assumed that a business school’s greatest asset is its faculty and its leadership team. While this is often true, both parties do play a major role in representing their institution, they’re not the only group of people that can help to showcase a business school.

A school’s alumni network is arguably one of the most important bodies of people available to any educational institution looking to achieve its PR goals. This is because, these individuals tick two key boxes: they’re the finished product – these individuals are living, breathing examples of what can be achieved through studying at a business school; and they’re legitimate – they’re no longer tied into the school, making them genuine endorsers of the institution.

So, with that in mind, it’s key that business schools harness the PR power of their alumni network, utilising their stories, expertise and profiles.

There’s evidence to show that the impact of COVID-19 has increased the value of the alumni community for business schools generally. These groups have been key to supporting students and careers departments throughout the crisis, sharing their experiences and expertise, as well as actually providing placement opportunities in some cases. And, when looking at PR, their stock price has only spiked. With the global economy looking rather bleak, and the jobs market adjusting as a result, now is the time for business schools to demonstrate the value of upskilling by undertaking postgraduate study. This is where a business school alumni network really comes in.

In order to demonstrate this point, we need to see a few examples of schools who truly understand the value of their alumni network:

Trinity Business School, based in the heart of Dublin, Ireland, is a great institution to start with. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Trinity has utilised its wide-reaching and varied alumni community to emphasise the value of studying at the Irish business school. Using a range of individuals, with different profiles and post-Trinity careers, the school has attracted a great deal of attention from a number of well-respected publications.

One particular story that has garnered a lot of attention comes from three Trinity graduates whose tech start-up is helping charities across Ireland to collect spare change in the era of social distancing. Having engaged with the three graduates, William Conaghan, Lizzy Hayashida and Matt Conaghan, who are responsible for Change Donations, Trinity set about sharing the story with business and business education press. The story garnered a lot of interest from key biz-ed outlets and organisations. Now, this story isn’t a brilliant one simply because it achieved a lot of attention. It’s a fantastic story because it reflects two things: studying with Trinity Business School will provide you with the skills needed to create your own business, should you choose to; and that Trinity Business School creates socially aware business leaders.

This kind of messaging is key for business schools right now. In a world that is still reeling from the impact of COVID-19, both socially and economically, in which the jobs markets are looking different, to say the least, and society is now asking more of the business community than ever before, business schools need to demonstrate that they’re creating future leaders that are both competent and acutely aware of the challenges the communities around them face. Alumni who fit the bill for this brief will be crucial for business school PR over the coming 12 months.

Trinity Business School isn’t alone in its effective approach to PR using its alumni network – Imperial College Business School have also taken a shrewd approach throughout the pandemic to PR, harnessing alumni profiles, as well as providing expert commentary. One particular story that stands out comes from an EMBA graduate who completed her studies in 2009, only a year after the previous financial crisis. Using Audrey Hametner’s story, which tells of completing an Executive MBA only to be made redundant a few weeks later, Imperial was able to demonstrate the resilience of its graduates in a difficult time. Having just completed her EMBA, Audrey was able to use her impressive CV to secure a senior role as the head of financial operations with a US company opening an office in Prague. Since then, Audrey has moved on to run her own consulting firm in Dubai. The story emphasises the attractiveness of a job applicants who have the Imperial EMBA to their name, as well as providing genuine, actionable advice to current students who are concerned about their career prospects due to the current economic climate.

Once again, the value of this story lies in the way in which it positions the business school, as well as the specific programme. And this kind of messaging or positioning isn’t just important during a global pandemic, business schools need to be harnessing their former students’ profiles and success stories to push programmes all year round.

Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands understands this notion, regularly showcasing its alumni in the media. Earlier this year in January, one of the school’s EMBA graduates, who has an unconventional educational background – not having an undergraduate degree – featured in the Financial Times. Danny Jansen, who originally dropped out of university to pursue a sports career, was able to share his reasons for choosing Nyenrode, and even admitted that until attending the school he didn’t realise what he was missing out on by not having a higher educational qualification. This less-than-conventional alumni story proved effective, being picked up by one of the most widely-read and well-respected publications on the planet, and highlighted the attractiveness of Nyenrode’s MBA suite.

In all three case studies, what’s clear is that through alumni stories and accounts, these business schools were able to clearly outline the value of studying at their institution, and do so in a legitimate way. There are very few other business school representatives that are able to produce such content without it looking overtly promotional.

Speaking with Conor Edwards, Trinity’s Alumni and Corporate Relations Manager, he tells me that the alumni network are “the real brand ambassadors for their alma mater”. According to Edwards, “no matter how much time and money goes into the marketing of a business school, ultimately it is the alumni that showcases the strengths of the business school and reflect its commitment to excellence in education, research and lifelong learning.

“Gaining information directly from alumni may be an especially effective marketing tool when prospective applicants are in the early stages of their research and looking for hard facts rather than a ‘sales pitch’”, he says.

With the world still feeling from COVID-19, and the extent of the damage to a number of sectors – including business education – still not fully realised, there will be undoubtedly be further ramifications for business school recruitment, marketing and PR. With this in mind, schools need to be utilising every asset they have to attract new applicants. Alumni networks are key to this, and so it’s crucial that business school cultivate relationships with these groups.