Amy Williams

Utilising celebrity alumni

In Education by Tom Cannon

From politicians to Pulitzer winners, Olympic athletes to academics, successful alumni span many disciplines. But, besides having their name and bio on the website, how can you utilise the shining stars of your alumni?

To get some top tips on this matter we spoke with representatives from three different universities’ alumni departments.

What are the benefits of having celebrity alumni?

University_of_BathMolly Southwood is the Deputy Director and Head of Alumni Engagement, Development & Alumni Relations at the University of Bath; she tells us the benefits are varied and far-reaching: “High profile alumni, including honorary graduates, help to raise the profile of the University, increase media coverage of events and graduations. Having celebrity speakers at events helps to sell tickets and increase interest, and can, when the messaging is managed, promote the university’s brand and objectives.”

Having well-known alumni can also work wonders for attracting new students to the university. Viola Polakowska is Head of Alumni Relations at City, University of London, she told us: “Notable alumni are very beneficial for universities such as City, University of London, especially if they are a ‘household’ name or widely recognised. We are proud of all our alumni but those who are well-known can feature on our promotional material and encourage prospective students to apply to City rather than another university. They can also offer to speak to current students and encourage them to follow in their footsteps.”

Due to their success and demands of their jobs, many notable alumni travel frequently or even relocate completely. Wayne Crawford, Alumni Relations Assistant at The University of Nottingham, explains how this can benefit the university: “We have everything from Nobel Prize winners to Olympic gold medallists, leading edge scientists, international politicians, journalists, novelists and actresses. Nottingham’s alumni continue to make significant contributions in their chosen fields all over the world. They also help to raise the profile of the university at home and in an international context, as well as provide expertise to those wanting to follow in their footsteps.”

How can alumni departments’ best utilise notable alumni?

Here are some of the ways in which universities with celebrity alumni keen to get involved have made the most of their skills, knowledge and presence.

1. Promotional material

City alumni screenshotSource: http://www.city.ac.uk/arts-social-sciences/journalism

Many students have people in their chosen discipline that they admire – be that sport or science – and seeing their names attached to a potential institution is a huge draw. In many cases this is advertised in the alumni department, but as Viola mentioned, celebrity alumni can be used on all manner of promotional material to attract prospective students.

Take the Journalism department at City University London, for example. On the journalism homepage they feature a video with James Harding (Director of news and current affairs at the BBC), Nicole Young (CBS 60 Minutes) and Radhika Sanghani (Telegraph Graduate Scheme) talking about their experience at City. Students can connect through their experiences and be inspired to apply to the same course.

2. Give speeches

Bath Rugby tweetSource: https://twitter.com/JustinOnWeb/status/827259474054295552

“We’ve held a number of events featuring notable alumni, for instance Justin King (former CEO of Sainsbury’s) was an after-dinner speaker and honorary graduate Justin Webb recently came to give a talk on ‘Engaging Audiences’,” says Molly.

As Molly previously mentioned, having big names attached to a speaking event can increase interest and attendance. It also adds real value to the student experience by giving them a chance to gain insight from an expert in their field.

3. Give an interview           

City alumni interviewSource: http://www.city.ac.uk/news/2016/october/cass-kicks-off-50th-anniversary-celebrations

Like giving a speech, being interviewed allows current students the opportunity to get to know celebrity alumni better and even ask their own questions. We like the approach taken at City, University of London which featured two of their notable alumni – one as the interviewee and the other as interviewer!

“Last September we hosted a celebratory dinner for the alumni of Cass Business School and the CEO and Chairman of The Coca-Cola Company, our MBA alumnus, offered us an exclusive interview with him, which was conducted by the CEO of Dow Jones, William Lewis, our Periodical Journalism alumnus,” says Viola.

4. Be a cheerleader

bath instagramSource: https://www.instagram.com/p/BCjVJBnOlXf/?taken-by=heathermstanning

 Sometimes you don’t even have to say anything! Molly tells us: “A number of our sporting alumni, which include several Olympic and Paralympic medallists, also attend sports events for both the University and our sports department, Team Bath.”

Olympic rowing alumni Heather Stanning MBE was last year inducted into the University of Bath Hall of fame. A regular visitor back to Bath and a huge supporter of the University, Team Bath is currently promoting Heather’s Marathon fundraiser, demonstrating the mutually beneficial relationship between the alumni and the university.

5. Provide a scholarship

 A significant example is creating a scholarship based on well-known alumni.  Viola shares an example from City, University of London: “Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, founder of easyJet and MSc Shipping, Trade and Finance alumnus has been supporting scholarship for the past 10 years”

6. Alumni hosted events

 An alumni hosted event is a great way to encourage networking and camaraderie among alumni. Viola Polakowska  tells us that Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou has “hosted several alumni events at the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation in Monaco.”

Are there any drawbacks to having celebrity alumni?

“Depending on the individual, celebrity alumni can be tricky to manage and keep on message when giving talks or participating in events. Sometimes we’ve found ourselves trying to shoehorn our objectives around a celebrity to take advantage of an offer of support,” says Molly.

So how can you handle this tricky situation? “In these situations it helps to take a step back and reassess why we are undertaking the activity in the first place, and ensure that our vision isn’t overshadowed by the celebrity. Unless of course the objective allows for that!”

In conclusion…

High profile alumni can help attract prospective students, share their knowledge and expertise and promote the profile of the university here in the UK and internationally. The best suited method for utilising this depends on the person and their availability and willingness to help.

For example, filming a short video segment to promote a specific course is a fairly quick way to achieve this and very effective at engaging prospective students. While providing a scholarship is certainly beneficial, the time and financial commitments are unlikely to suit all celebrity alumni.