During 2009 Australia was labelled “racist” by the Indian media following attacks on Indian students. Australia’s reputation as a safe place to study was in tatters and the lucrative Indian education market was in danger of drying up as enrolments dropped and students returned home.
South Australia’s international education marketing agency Education Adelaide (EA), which has overseen the tripling of student numbers since 2002, launched an issues management strategy to reestablish SA’s reputation as a safe destination.
With a limited budget, tensions mounting and messages required to reach stakeholders on two continents, EA needed to act swiftly, cleverly and decisively.
Using research that allowed EA to benchmark attitudes and track changes, goals were set, target audiences identified and strategies and messages developed to achieve desired results.
From a personal letter to each Indian student studying in Adelaide from the South Australian Premier to a Twenty20 cricket match at the iconic Adelaide Oval against SA Police to celebrate community harmony, EA’s efforts were innovative and targeted.
The results have been stunning: enrolments from India during 2009 were double the national average and international students rate Adelaide as Australia’s safest city.
During 2009, a number of attacks were recorded against Indian students, predominantly in the eastern states.
While the attacks were causing headlines in Australia and resulting in rallies against racial violence, in India the reaction was far stronger with effigies of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd being burnt outside the Australian High Commission in New Delhi as he sought to repair damage between the two nations by denying Australia was “racist”.
Across Australia, enrolments from Indian students were beginning to drop sharply with some students packing their bags and returning home.
While SA had remained relatively free of violence against international students, an attack on one Indian student was reported in Adelaide in May 2009.
As a result of this attack and sustained, negative publicity in the Indian media, EA implemented its Crisis and Issues Management Plan.
India is one of Australia’s most important export markets for international education, contributing $3.2 billion to the Australian economy alone each year. It was clear that even a halving of student numbers could have a devastating impact on the local economy.
Furthermore, there was a danger that the reported fear gripping the Indian student community could begin to flow into other student communities, further jeopardising Australia’s $18.6 billion international education industry.
To allay fears and stabilise enrolments, it was clear that a well-thought out public relations strategy that identified and targeted all stakeholders with clear and compelling messages was critical.
It was also clear that EA was best placed to develop and implement strategies, given its role as an agency that exists to market South Australia as a study destination to overseas students as well as its position as a broker of information for all parties involved in the international education sector, from education providers to students.
To ensure EA understood the issues involved and was able to develop key messages and strategies that work, a combination of media analysis and surveys were utilised.
In addition, focus groups and one-on-one meetings with students helped EA to understand specific concerns and tailor its messages appropriately.
Information and advice was also sought from EA’s members (made up of 45 education institutions) as well as from education agents in India at the “coalface”.
While the wider international student community was also a target public, it was mainly viewed as a secondary target. However, it is clear that resultant positive media and the success of other activities throughout the campaign would have greatly benefited this group as well.
Likewise, while the media may be viewed by some as a target public, in this case it was considered a vehicle for distributing messages.
EA’s Crisis and Issues Management Plan was the cornerstone of strategic planning allowing it to react swiftly and accurately to developments as they occurred.
Key strategies included:
• Providing continued support to students and membership institutions
• Creating greater awareness of international student support resources to students and stakeholders
• Generating positive media coverage (including in India) where appropriate
• Listening to student feedback and acting upon it
• Reinforcing the cultural, economic and social benefits of the international student education industry in SA.
The campaign was delivered in three stages:
- Initial briefings, gathering of information (including research materials) and strategy development
- Strategy rollout
Activities were defined along with rationale while a calendar was developed to ensure all components of the plan were implemented in a timely and professional manner.
The overarching goal to reduce the impact of the attacks on Indian students on enrolments and reinforce Adelaide’s reputation as a safe place to study was achieved.
Not only did South Australia enrolments from India increase by nearly 50 per cent during 2009 (nearly double the national average), but Adelaide was rated as Australia’s safest city1.
In addition, EA generated scores of positive media articles about Adelaide as a study destination in Australia and India2.
There is no doubt that results achieved during 2009 have provided a strong platform on which to generate even more interest in Adelaide as a study destination during 2010 and beyond.
1 Appendix A.4. IDP Education research - International students’ ranking of cities by attributes
2 Appendix A.5 Examples of international web links to Premier letter story and other stories favouring Adelaide as an international education destination
All objectives were met or exceeded:
Despite the strong reaction to attacks on Indian students in Australia during 2009 – including drops in enrolments and the branding of Australia in India as a “racist” nation – EA was able to act quickly, decisively and rationally to turn the debate around.
Each of the four key objectives of the campaign, along with the overarching goal, was not only met but in most cases exceeded.
With a modest budget, EA’s efforts helped generate record Indian student enrolments during 2009 as well as ensuring the SA community continues to embrace the international education industry – exceptional results that have surpassed the expectations of EA and its stakeholders.
3 Appendix A.5. South Australia’s Top 10 Countries
4 Appendix A.3 Study Adelaide Community Perceptions Research Report
5 Appendix A.4. IDP Education research - International students’ ranking of cities by attributes