Public Relations in Academic Cyberspace: Analysing the Relational-Promotional Discourse of University Websites in Europe
Over the last decade, the European University has had to redefine itself to comply with neoliberal policies (enforcing state-driven marketisations of an ever-growing number of extra-economic activities) supported by transnational institutions such as the European Commission. Following this scheme, one of the explicit tasks assigned to universities is engaging with the so-called global “knowledge economy”, according to which competitiveness between academic institutions is seen as a one-size-fits-all rule to deliver better public service and research. Moreover, this new, increasingly corporate environment triggers numerous socioprofessional transformations, including an upsurge in research evaluation and accountability, the heavy use of ICTs, the extreme massification of student enrolments or the implementation of management techniques in administration. More particularly, we can detect the emergence of specific imperatives which are often derived from the corporate world and recontextualised in “colonised” university campuses. One such imperative focuses on the creation and fostering of numerous alliances with various “stakeholders” (be they local corporations, students, potential fundraisers or the mass media) which are thought to be critical to sustaining research activities and “knowledge production” in general. For universities, these calls for diversified, heterogeneous relations have generated new communication practices: for instance, most European universities now capitalise on public relations management, which has become a decisive, strategic frame to promote the institution and, along the way, engage with “society”. Furthermore, the use of traditional communication resources is being challenged by the “glocalisation” of universities: contrasting with the “old” media, information and communication technologies (ICTs), and the World Wide Web in particular, have now become indispensable ingredients in outreach communication strategies. More specifically, in this context, I intend to demonstrate how the University Website, considered here as a discourse-shaped, socially constructed cyber-space, can be viewed as a physical focal point where a particular (ideologically loaded) “relationalpromotional” discourse can materialise. On a practical basis, I use a threepronged methodology, applied to a corpus of university websites: first I concentrate on the discourse per se disseminated on these institutional websites; second, I analyse how this relational-promotional discourse structures their architecture; and three, I study their hyperlink networks, which can be viewed as “crystallising” the relationships in which the selected universities (wish to) engage. All in all, this project strives to link a particular emerging discourse in academia with its materialisation in cyberspace - which is always permeable to (neoliberal) ideologies.