From Agora to Shopping Mall: Tone-of-Voice Policies, Marketing and the Re-making of British Universities

Are the agorae that modern universities would claim to be in similar states of disrepair? (Photo: arble building dedicated to Hermes located in the Agora of the Competaliasts in Delos, Greece. Bernard Gagnon/ Wikimedia)

British universities today imagine themselves as commercial entities – corporations that compete with other corporations for revenues. This transformation into commercial entities has required universities to develop new forms of labour, organisational structures, modes of self-imagination, and styles of communication. At least some universities have come to employ tone-of-voice policies to accomplish this transformation. Hailing from the world of business marketing, tone-of-voice policies are meant to standardise organisations’ internal and external communication, so as to construct a positive brand image. They are developed by marketing firms as well as businesses’ internal communications departments, and they are employed by a range of organisations, including, for example, the NHS, government ministries, charities, and universities (1, 2, 3).

Nehring Corporate bugTone-of-voice policies are an interesting subject matter because they allow detailed insights into the ways in which universities are imagined by their leadership. The point of departure of all these policies is the regulation of speech, in internal communication among university staff, in dealings with other organisations, and in public communication. Some universities offer only brief and general advice, while others regulate speech down to the use of words and the structure of sentences. Whether brief or detailed, academic tone-of-voice policies share the objective to standardise the speech of university staff in ways that correspond to corporate objectives:

“With lots of different people writing on behalf of the University, we need to demonstrate one voice so that when our audiences read our communications they feel confident that we know what we’re talking about. Everything from our annual report to a two-line email should be written in the University style.” (University of Glasgow)

“What is tone of voice and why do we need a ‘Warwick’ tone of voice? The tone of our language defines the way people respond to us. By writing in a tone that’s true to our brand, we can express what it is that makes University of Warwick unique.” (University of Warwick)

“Like any commercial organisation, we are competing. We’re competing for the best students, staff and funding. So, we need to be clear about what makes us different from other universities and, importantly, we need to be able to communicate this. […]The more consistent we are, the more likely it is that people will understand what makes us special. The way we express ourselves has to be joined up and consistent so that people admire, respect and, crucially, trust us. It’s no good saying we’re imaginative if our language is anything but. So we need a strong verbal identity that we all understand and know how to use.” (University of Leeds)

The open reference to being a “commercial organisation” (Leeds) is notable here, as is the consistent emphasis on uniform modes of communication in the pursuit of commercial objectives. Tone-of-voice policies ask academic staff to attune their speech to an entrepreneurial, rather than academic, model. Thus, the University of Warwick’s policy suggests “soundbites” (p.4) that academics might use in their communication and warns against language that sounds like an “academic tract” (p.4). Its authors would like academics’ language to sound like “the conversation that leads to a breakthrough; like the voice of an entrepreneur sharing a point of view: ambitious, confident, challenging, persuasive, energized and focused” (p.4).

This entrepreneurial mobilisation of academics unavoidably comes hand in hand with the de-intellectualisation of academic space: if academics are meant to communicate in soundbites and employ the vacuous marketing terminology prescribed by tone of voice policies, what room is left for complex academic debates? Tone-of-voice policies seek to simplify and standardize language in ways that are incompatible with serious scholarship. Moreover, they mark the transition of universities from agorae into shopping malls – from public spaces that facilitate complex, open-ended intellectual exchanges into privatized commercial spaces in which everything on display seems shiny and certain questions must not be asked.

Tone-of-voice policies are marketing tools. They set out what corporate managers would universities like to be, but they fortunately do not characterize the ways in which academics actually think, speak and write. In so far as they describe desired endpoints of organisational development, tone-of-voice policies must nevertheless be taken seriously. They raise serious questions about the future of academic freedom in Britain and the extent to which academic labor may come to be subject to the financial and political objectives of the corporate managers that form universities’ leadership.

Daniel Nehring’s blog reflects own views only and not necessarily those of his employer.

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Daniel Nehring

My career so far has taken me to a fairly wide range of places, and this has allowed me to experience a wide range of approaches to sociology and social science. In my blog, I reflect on this diversity and its implications for the future of the discipline.

Over the last few years, I have also become interested in exploring the contours of academic life under neoliberal hegemony. Far-reaching transformations are taking place at universities around the world, in terms of organisational structures, patterns of authority, and forms of intellectual activity. With my posts, I hope to draw attention to some of these transformations.

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