Media relations and PR in higher education continues to evolve. The old days of pitching story ideas or blindly sending out news releases is giving way to a different model — one that relies more on the Internet to connect us to our audiences.
We’re trying to optimize our websites to make them easier for journalists to find and easier for Google to index. We’re sharing more news with our audiences via social media. We’re putting our content in more media vessels than ever before, re-purposing print stories for the web and web for print, posting video and audio online, encouraging interaction through blogs and social. More and more, we are relying on the Internet to help get our news and our stories to our audiences.
That audience includes journalists, and many of them rely on the Internet to conduct research about the stories they’re working on. If we’re doing a good job getting of making our institutions visible in the online world of search and social, then chances are a journalist will end up on our .edu site in search for background information, or perhaps a source for an interview.
So, how well do our websites communicate the type of information journalists are looking for?
To my knowledge, no comprehensive study of .edu pages has tried to answer that question. But PR on Websites, a recent study by Nielsen Norman Group, does look at corporate, government and non-profit sites, and much of the information from that study translates well to the higher ed sector.
The free, 287-page report 287-page report offers more than 100 design recommendations for improving the design of PR areas of corporate websites, as well as helpful screenshots, discussions and quotes from journalists who took part in this comprehensive usability study. This is the third edition of this report, but it’s the first one I’ve read, and its expanded list of tips — 103 this time, as opposed to 32 from the first edition — provides a wealth of takeaways that should benefit anyone interested in making their websites friendlier to journalists.
Despite the report’s length, it’s an easy read — as you would expect of any report created by usability guru Jakob Nielsen and his company — so if you do no more than skim the executive summary (pages 3 through 7), you’ll glean some useful information.
“Ultimately,” write report authors Kara Pernice, Hoa Loranger and Nielsen, “PR-related usability comes down to a simple question: Why spend a fortune on outbound PR (trying to pitch journalists) when you neglect simple steps to increase the effectiveness of inbound PR (satisfying journalists who visit your website)?”
Some takeaways for higher ed PR folks and web designers:
Ditch the marketing talk
This should be a no-brainer for anyone with a PR background, but it’s worth emphasizing up front. “Journalists are not gullible,” the report notes, “and they don’t take a company’s own word as truth. Indeed, almost all journalists said that press releases were useful only to find out how a company is trying to position itself.” I would like to think that those of us in higher education are less buzzwordy than PR folks in, say, the tech sector. But I’ve seen my share of marketing dreck in higher ed PR pieces. (Heck, I’ve had to put my fair share of said dreck in press releases.)
The Nielsen folks further advise: “[B]asic information must be easy to find and should be cleansed of the marketese and excessive verbiage that smother the facts on many sites. Journalists don’t have time to … sift factual wheat from marketing chaff.”
How much of your PR content is actual wheat and how much is chaff? Better to do the sifting before you put your content on the web.
Facts, not fluff
Related to the point above, journalists want access to facts about our organizations.
In general, the more interesting facts you present about your company, products,and executives, the better for PR. Journalists look for facts they can use in their stories. Our study participants were much more excited about genuine information than about marketing claims, which they immediately discarded.
How easy is it for journalists to access interesting facts about your school?
Make it easy for journalists to contact the people they need to contact for their stories. Doing so “can set you apart” from the competition.
Specifically, the study says journalists want to be able to easily find this information from our websites:
- Press: Name, telephone number, and e-mail address
- Company overview: What the company does, its purpose
- Products and services: Information at the right level of detail
- Financials: Trends (e.g., current and yearly earnings)
- Management: Names, images, and bios of high-level executives
- Philanthropic involvement: Information on social and environmental responsibility or other goodwill.
- Spin: How the company wants to be perceived, its angle on a story
- Images: Downloadable, high-resolution images of important people, products, services, and events
- General facts: The basics of the company (e.g., CEO, headquarters, number of employees, year established)
- People: Names and contact information for people who can be interviewed
We should assume they’re looking for the same from us.
Above all, make sure that your institution can easily be found via a Google search. “When looking for information and getting to the company’s website, the majority of the participants used Google and typed the company name in the search bar.” Journalists also relied on Google to get contact information. As one is quoted as saying in the study, “I use Google a lot to get people’s e-mail and phone number. Google is a time-saver.”
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Higher ed websites try to serve a multitude of audiences, which makes focusing on a single one (like journalists) tough. But many of the same features journalists are looking for are useful to other audiences, too. The point this underscores for me is an idea that I’ve made before in this space: the colleges and universities need to start thinking like a media organization.