Mind Your Tone

Glen Newey

In the brave new world of know-biz, universities now issue ‘tone of voice’ marketing-correctness drills to staff charged with handling the ‘brand’. The comms and marketing wonks who write them face a tough challenge: to pander to their institution’s special-snowflake syndrome, while spouting the same commercial cobblers as everyone else.

‘Brand is expressed in everything we do,’ proclaims Stirling’s drill-sheet. As with brand wars generally, the narcissism of homeopathic-dose differences prevails. It’s tough to pick winners amid the textureless blather that has lately seeped from campus PR outfits, but some efforts merit special mention. Plymouth promises to take web users on a ‘branding journey’, after its poll asking teachers whether ‘the University’s corporate identity was fit for purpose’ yielded ‘a 100% rejection of the current logo’. Kent enjoins staff to spotlight its ‘USP’ as a ‘European university’. Sheffield Hallam puts in a strong showing, with meticulously crafted balls about the ‘building blocks of our brand’, ‘our defining characteristics and areas of distinctiveness’ and an unbeatable barf line: ‘A brand is therefore far more than a logo. It is a promise kept.’

Manchester’s tone of voice guide agrees in lauding ‘a great brand’ which ‘makes us different and stand out from the crowd’. It poses the question: ‘If The University of Manchester were a person, what would we be like?’. Hopes that a real person might be identified – maybe someone with a Manchester connection, like Alex Ferguson or Harold Shipman – and the blandness fleetingly dispelled, soon drown in further verbal purée. Decorum is all. Some of the protocols seem to target students, who on top of being bled for £9000 a year in fees, are told to say not 'One of the best things about halls is that you can pop in to see your mates for a brew' but 'Living in halls of residence means your friends are a door-knock away' – which sounds less inviting, as it encompasses the grim prospect of being door-stepped at 3.47 a.m. by 9/11 conspiracy theorists or the Jesus Army.

In a keen field, though, it’s Warwick’s drill-sheet that takes the jammie dodger. Needless to say, the university’s brand is ‘unique’: Warwick is ‘a place that rejects the notion of obstacles’, which must give it a unique physics department. ‘Anything is possible,’ the crib gushes, an idea nutshelled in the phrase ‘What if?’ ‘What if’, we learn, ‘doesn’t dwell in the past’; history is so last year. Staff should dwell instead in the near-future of launch hype, which ‘creates a sense of anticipation, progress and change’. Using the magic phrase in your writing 'can have a highly creative effect’: in their example, ‘What if we banned chairs at our meetings?’ It’s unclear whether they mean professors, moderators or furniture.

You have to ‘say it like you mean it’ – does that mean that you can really not mean it, as long as you keep a straight face? Irony’s a no-no. So’s uncertainty: staff should ‘show conviction by limiting the use of tentative words such as possibly, hopefully or maybe’. What if you think you might be wrong? What if the 'What if?' meme makes the person mouthing it resemble someone whose development flatlined at the age of five? You just keep chundering out verbiage into the ether, confident that any gaffes will instantly get memory-holed in the perpetual present of sales patter. That doesn’t mean you can say what you like, though, as a Warwick professor, Thomas Docherty, found last year when he was suspended after publishing a book criticising the commercialisation of higher education, though Warwick insisted that wasn't the reason. (He was reinstated nine months later and 'cleared of all wrongdoing'.)

What if a university whose vice chancellor gets £332,000 a year launched its own firm to casualise academic teaching staff, thereby blocking unionisation and some ‘benefits’ (such as payment for marking) enjoyed by contract staff? As its tone-of-voice sheet boasts, Warwick ‘thinks big and dares to defy convention’.


  • 10 April 2015 at 9:30pm
    Mat Snow says:
    I am heartily glad that my teenage daughter's talents incline her away from the temptation to succumb to the fraudulent allure of the modern English university. Indeed, we are surely now at the point where undergraduate entry to an English university offers greater proof of idiocy than intelligence.

    Warwick University students are now twigging that everything in their own academic garden is far from rosy, that it is in the business of profiteering and the extravagant enrichment of its senior manageriat rather than adding to the sum of human knowledge, cultivating the habit of rational enquiry and passing down the fruits of learning to fresh generations.

    Campaigning as they have been, though, for the rescinding of the knighthood conferred on their thug-loving, dissent-crushing and above all boot-filling Vice-Chancellor, Sir Nigel Thrift, Warwick University students have failed to understand that in this day and age — the era of Jimmy Savile, Fred Goodwin, Malcolm Rifkind and the Barclay brothers — a knighthood is just about the blackest stain one could possibly have on one's escutcheon.

  • 11 April 2015 at 9:23am
    Mat Snow says:
    I should qualify my description of Thrift as 'thug-loving' by reference to his defence of the police in their violent handling of the protesting Warwick University students who had the temerity to complain about the VC's regime.

  • 12 April 2015 at 9:26am
    Northern Academic says:
    "an effect of branding is to distance the commodity from the social rela- tions and conditions involved in its production by layering it with myths and symbols" (Edensor and Kothari, 2006: 333)

    Our staff are under increasing pressure, their colleagues have been sacked and KPIs keep them in a constant state of fear leading to more and more reporting stress, depression and anxiety, but look at how nice our new logo, typeface and powerpoint template is!!

  • 12 April 2015 at 4:33pm
    jrsd says:
    I hadn't made the connection before, but I've just realised that the 'thug-loving' Sir Nigel is the same Nigel Thrift I've read a bit of - who seems to specialise in theorising about representations of space under late capitalism etc (see his Wikipedia entry). Which I suppose goes to prove that making quasi-radical pronouncements about poststructuralism is no impediment to running a late capitalist corporate entity and rewarding yourself well for doing so.