Organisation - February 9, 2012

‘I wanted to give Wageningen a hipper image’

From an association with agriculture to the life sciences. From paper pamphlets to instant tweets. From docile citizens to outspoken critics. As head of Communications, Viola Peulen led Wageningen UR into the brave new world of modern communications. Now she’s moving on.

‘Am I no longer happy here? Because I’m moving on? This isn’t a research job; I’ve been working here for over six years and there comes a day when you suddenly realize you’ve got into a cycle: here we go again with this or that… Then it’s time for a change. Good for me and refreshing for the organization.’ So Viola Peulen, director of Corporate Communications and Marketing, is moving on 1 March to Nijmegen, to put the St Radboud University Medical Centre on the map. ‘Yes, another institute that combines education with research’, she says. ‘And there is a lot going on in the health care sector: working with market forces, developing centres of expertise – these are the challenges. I am not interested in developing further in a management position; I would rather do content-related work within my subject area.’
Peulen currently leads about 80 people from the head office, but even in Wageningen she has found time to engage with the core work too. She looks back with pride on such achievements as the development of the intranet, Wageningen World, and the Food for Thought fundraising campaign. But most of all, on her first main task: getting rid of the last traces of an association with old-style agriculture that still stuck to Wageningen UR. ‘The ‘You’ll wake up in Wageningen’ recruitment campaign that was running then made you hear cockerels crowing in the farmyard. I wanted to give Wageningen a hipper image.’
It worked out well: student numbers soared to 80 percent more than when Peulen arrived. ‘I am quite proud of that, but you must keep it in proportion. We had a lot of things going for us: the beautiful new Forum building, the fact that our themes were marketable, and don’t forget that although we at Communications make sure Wageningen stays in the picture, it’s the people who run the programmes who convince the high school students at the open days.’

Stomach ache
But it hasn’t been all sweetness and light over the past six years. ‘The call for tenders for Resource in 2008 gave me sleepless nights and stomach ache’, she recalls. ‘Particularly the inaccurate reports that we were aiming at a commercial magazine. As if that was something the organization would want. I was able to postpone the Europe-wide tender for a couple of years, but then it had to happen. It was not planned in advance that the tender submitted by Cereales, the publisher of Resource at the time, did not come out top.’
The way the organization came under fire last year, in Zembla over the bee research for instance, is all in the game, says Peulen. ‘The social context has changed. Increasingly, people with different stances on an issue try to use research results for their own ends. If it suits them, they give more credence to their auntie than to an eminent professor. And everything spreads around the world at lightning speed on the internet or through Twitter. What we’ve got in Wageningen is invaluable, but we need to give more though to what and how we present it to the public, who will react to it and what the consequences could be.’ She is not in favour of making a distinction between communication about the university and about the more commercially oriented institutions. ‘That unity is our strength, but we must make clear to the public every time again what sort of research is in question, who did it and who commissioned it’, says Peulen. ‘When I first came here we still worked with collections of newspaper cuttings’, she says. ‘Now we have a webcare system that automatically tracks any tweets about us and detects whether the tone is positive or negative. We then get going on a webcure, responding or inviting someone in for a cup of coffee. Gone are the days when communications personnel could take a day to mull over a press release.’