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Changes in communication in, from, and about higher education institutions

Studies in Communication Sciences

Higher education institutions (HEIs) are pivotal organizations in modern societies (Schäfer & Fähnrich, 2020). In past decades, the higher education sector has expanded considerably in many countries, with rapid increases in research output, growing student enrollment, and newly founded colleges and universities. New public management reforms and a growing need for societal legitimation have led many HEIs to prioritize communication, i.e., to establish communication offices, pursue branding, marketing, and reputation management, and to professionalize their communication efforts on traditional channels, websites, and social media (Davies & Horst, 2016; Elken, Stensaker, & Dedze, 2018; Marcinkowski, Kohring, Fürst, & Friedrichsmeier, 2014; Raupp & Osterheider, 2019; Schwetje, Hauser, Böschen, & Leßmöllmann, 2020; Vogler & Schäfer, 2020). This has resulted in competition for public visibility, involving researchers, HEI leadership, and professional communicators at central levels, research centers, and departments (Crettaz von Roten & Entradas, 2018; Entradas et al., 2020; Friedrichsmeier & Fürst, 2012; Koivumäki & Wilkinson, 2020; McKinnon, Black, Bobillier, Hood, & Parker, 2019; Rödder, 2020; Watermeyer & Lewis, 2018). This competition could fuel the mediatization of scientific organizations (Peters, Heinrichs, Jung, Kallfass, & Petersen, 2008; Scheu, Volpers, Summ, & Blöbaum, 2014) and poses new risks and challenges, from unintended and potentially dysfunctional effects to scandals and crises (Fähnrich, Danyi, & Nothhaft, 2015; Schwarz & Büker, 2019). However, scant research has been conducted on how communication in, from, and about HEIs has developed over time and changed as a result of transformations in higher education and the media landscape. The Covid-19 pandemic has also had an impact on higher education communication that has yet to be explored. Moreover, several studies have focused on practices and structures of communication offices, whereas little attention has been paid to members of the administrative board (rectorate) and their changing perceptions and strategies regarding the public communication and representation of their particular organizations.

While communication offices at HEIs have expanded, journalism has suffered from reductions in staff and resources, resulting in an increasing imbalance between science journalism and university public relations (Göpfert, 2007; Guenther, 2019; Vogler & Schäfer, 2020). Researchers argue that this development poses a risk that fact-based, independent, and critical reporting on science could decline while the dissemination of strategic, affirmative, and sometimes even misleading information could increase (Bauer & Howard, 2009; Göpfert, 2007; Weingart, 2017; Wormer, 2017), thereby jeopardizing trust in science and HEIs in the mid-to-long term (Weingart & Joubert, 2019). However, we know little about these interrelations, about the quality and ethics of HEIs’ communication as well as about news coverage and public perceptions of HEIs and their changes over the past years and decades.

Existing studies indicate a growing diversity of communication formats and media channels addressing various stakeholders, including the….

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