Finding the UFS narrative through DevCom’s research agility.

2020: The University of the Free State

The University of the Free State (UFS) is a progressive university with a focus on transformation as a core strategy. As a university that excels at teaching, learning and research, they also place a large emphasis on making a social impact contribution to society. The UFS council asked DevCom to assist them with a research study and plan to increase visibility to external stakeholders, build a sustainable reputation, and ensure future financial security.

In 2019 the institution recognised the need for a standard, inviting story that would attract students. They had established a Reputation Management Forum (RMF) to support the university in achieving its reputation management objectives and to strengthen, expand, and integrate the overall communication efforts of the UFS across all markets and to all stakeholders, working cross-functionally to leverage and align existing programmes across departments, faculties, and the campuses.

Our implementation

To achieve this goal, the UFS contracted DevCom to do action-based research that must feed into the development of the UFS narrative – which was built from the stakeholder/audience’s perspective.

The goal was to understand the perceptions of the stakeholders to inform a structured narrative and message map. This map would ultimately lead to improved brand visibility and reputation. This in turn would lead to more students with higher graduation rates.

Through action-based research we were able to build a narrative from the stakeholders’ perspective and not the institution’s perspective. We used both qualitative and quantitative data to test the narrative proposed by the UFS and then we utilised the data to construct a narrative that would appeal to the key audiences.

The next step was to create visibility through media and message, and share stories from the different stakeholders to build an authentic narrative and increase visibility.

Our research methodology:

DevCom’s methodology of formal and informal research was informed through faculty meetings, reviewing existing business data and reports, followed by a stakeholder consultation and analysis process. This methodology resulted in an informed narrative, and the plan to document the implementation guidelines and recommendations, based on IABC global best practices.


Covid-19 hit South Africa hard since the start of 2020 and due to local lockdown measures, DevCom had to conduct all focus groups virtually (via Zoom, Skype, Teams, and Blackboard Collaborate). Although we experienced some difficulties during the virtual research process, such as connectivity, technology issues and limited access to technology, DevCom used its agility strength to power through and conduct all set-out interviews. We held interviews with the internal stakeholders, the faculty heads from various departments and across all three campuses. There were 11 alignment interviews held with 66 participants.

The participants included the academic staff, support staff, and postgraduate students. The undergraduate student group was the only stakeholder category that did not participate in this round of focus groups due to technical difficulties. The conversation in these groups focused on what makes the UFS unique. The findings of this research were the same as those identified in the first round of interviews. We probed further and dug deeper into what separates the UFS from other universities.

Our impact

DevCom’s research proved successful in providing the necessary information to design a narrative. The success was proven because:

  • A single ‘story’ (narrative) was articulated and agreed to.
  • The story captures the essence of the UFS strategic intent, statements, and documents.
  • The story will position and differentiate the UFS from other South African universities.
  • A clarification was reached on exactly what the UFS stands for and what they want people to identify them with.
  • The story will enable all UFS employees to consistently interpret and communicate the same narrative about who the UFS is; and to adapt that same storyline to different contexts (research; teaching and learning and leadership).