As the lead of any news story should, the opening paragraph of The State of the News Media 2013, from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, encapsulates everything a skimmer of the news needs to know about the subject:
In 2012, a continued erosion of news reporting resources converged with growing opportunities for those in politics, government agencies, companies and others to take their messages directly to the public.
This is not exactly breaking news. The news media are in a tough spot and have been for years.
Their predicament also puts organizations that have relied on media coverage for much of their visibility — like colleges and universities — in a similar pickle.
Higher education has never been a big news topic. K-12 and higher education combined made up just 1.4 percent percent of national media coverage, according to a 2009 report, and I doubt things have improved much since.
Given such a low level of media coverage, it may become even more difficult to justify media relations activities in higher education. Yet it’s been my experience that the demand for media coverage of our higher ed institutions (from administrators, alumni, trustees, etc.) has not decreased, even though our efforts to tell our own stories directly to our audiences has increased.
So how should higher ed communicators adapt to this environment of fewer opportunities for media coverage coupled with no lower demand for such coverage from our audiences and those we report to?
If the news media’s ability to cover our organizations is on the wane, and the news hole for education is already incredibly small, then what level of resources should we devote to our media relations efforts?
The disintermediated world
I’ve written here before on the subject of disintermediation in the news business. “Disintermediation” is a big, awkward, ugly word that, in economic jargon, refers to the removal of intermediaries in the supply chain for delivering goods and services. To borrow language from the factory outlet store marketers, disintermediation means, “We eliminate the middleman.”
We’ve seen disintermediation disrupt entire industries, thanks to the Internet. (When is the last time you went to a travel agent to plan a trip? You can just log on to Travelocity or Priceline and find the best rates yourself.) The same sort of disruption is happening in the news business, and it heightens the need for college and university PR organizations to think differently about how we deliver the news.
We need to deliver their messages to their audiences through other avenues. It’s critical that higher ed PR, marketing and branding staff think like a media organization — a publisher of news content — to get their messages out. (We’re already doing this, to some extent. Visit most any higher ed website and you’ll find some news or feature story about some slice of campus life.)
Media coverage matters
Yet for many of our audiences, getting the news about our institutions directly from the source doesn’t carry the same weight as seeing positive news coverage of our institutions in mainstream media outlets. Here are a couple of reasons why:
- Third-party validation. It’s one thing to say, “Look what great things our organization is doing!” It’s quite another to have some established authority say, “Look what great things this organization is doing!” That’s what positive media coverage of our institutions helps with. So, yes, it’s important to deliver the news directly to our audiences. But it’s tough to beat a reputable third-party endorsement of what you’re saying. The idea goes back at least as far as the Old Testament Book of Proverbs : Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips. – Proverbs 27:2. Even wise old Solomon knew the value of third-party validation.
- Rankings. Yes, rankings. People love to compare their affiliated institutions with others. And media organizations know this. That’s why the higher ed rankings game has exploded in recent years. Everyone from the granddaddy of the ratings game (U.S. News & World Report) to President Obama has gotten in to the ranking game. They may or may not be helpful to prospective students looking for a good fit, and they may be nothing more than “pageantry” and nonsense to some observers. But many audiences take them seriously. It’s another form of third-party validation. For better or for worse, media relations efforts don’t have much direct influence with where an institution may fall in the rankings. But there is a theory that PR efforts, like sharing an institution’s media placements with leaders of other institutions in order to influence those leaders’ vote, can help an institution in the rating game.
Opportunity and the new media mix
So, where does this leave today’s higher ed PR/media relations professional? To go back to that report on The State of the News Media, it leaves us in the land of opportunity.
We have more opportunity to share our story than ever before. Here’s why:
- Free your stories on the web. It’s trite to say that our websites are the front doors to our institutions. But there’s truth to that saying. By thinking like a media organization, we can publish our news before we share them with the news media (or at least at the same time). We can also do the once-unthinkable: Share stories created for other media (such as a story written for the alumni magazine) on our websites. Maybe not every story that goes into your alumni magazine is appropriate for sharing on your website. But I bet many are. So why not reuse and repurpose that content for other audiences? As Georgy Cohen put it in this nearly two-year-old (but still relevant) post, Reinventing News on Your University Website: “[W]e need to start finding ways to own our stories. We don’t need to rely on the media. They should be an amplifier, but not our main conduit for communications. “
- Use social media to amplify your news. As Georgy said, the news media can be an amplifier. So can social media. Judiciously share your news via Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook or other social platforms so that your fans and followers can share with their networks. Quoting Georgy again (dang, that woman’s good!), “News content is our ambassador. A news story may not be our most visited page, but it may be our most well-traveled.” Just don’t be an automaton in your social media sharing. Don’t throw every news release out there in an RSS feed. Be human about it. Sharing stories via social media is especially important if you want to reach younger audiences. According to a 2012 study, one-third of people under 30 get their news from social networks.
- Lose the “news” view. Sometimes we get too hung up on our traditional perspective of news. In the digital world, we can loosen up a bit. Get your students and alumni involved with your social media presence through contests (as we did over the summer with an Instagram contest in partnership with our campus bookstore) or through special hashtags for events like commencement or move-in weekend. Then collect and share that information in various ways (see item 7, below).
- Share that third-party coverage. It’s OK to share the relevant positive media coverage your institution receives from mainstream media. In fact, that might be the best content to share with some audiences. Include in alumni newsletters, notes to trustees, on social media and anywhere else where you think it would matter. This includes those rankings (assuming you can say something good about your institution’s spot) or third-party stories about your institution’s position in the rankings. (A year ago, we got good play in social media and elsewhere by sharing an ABCNews story about 12 Colleges Whose Payoff In Pay Beats Harvard’s. But again, be judicious with your sharing. Don’t overdo it.
- Share, share, share. I know I just advised you to not overshare information. But sometimes we’re guilty of the opposite sin: We undershare information, assuming people who should know about our news coverage actually do know. One audience that often gets overlooked is the internal audience of students, faculty, staff and administrators. They need to be in the know of all the great news coverage your efforts are yielding. They, too, can be great ambassadors of your stories. These individuals already have a strong connection, and they are able to reach audiences who might otherwise ignore your stories. So work a reporting mechanism into your media relations plan to ensure internal audiences know what’s being covered and what’s being discussed. This can work both formally (daily reports of news coverage) or informally (sending an email of thanks to a student or professor who worked with you on a press release that got great media coverage, and cc’ing upper-level administrators and that person’s boss).
- Think differently about third-party validation. In the online world, your networks contain important influencers. Students, alumni, faculty, other campus staff, administrators — they all have networks that extend beyond your official online presence. Think of them as third-party validators of your news. Anytime they share your content, they are adding value to it within their social networks. They provide credibility that an institutional account might not bring. At Missouri S&T, we’re fortunate to have a chancellor who is very active on Twitter (@SandTChancellor) and a CIO who is active on Twitter (@ghsmith76) and also blogs about technology in higher education. Their networks add value and validation to your institution’s stories.
- Gather and curate. Social media tools such as Storify make it easy to pull together all types of digital content. Use them to your advantage. Create an account (here’s ours) and use it as a digital depository. You can then share the information on your website, via social media or electronic newsletters, or elsewhere.
What’s the takeaway from all of this?
It’s that media relations has morphed. PR professionals at colleges and universities are no longer just pitchmen and pitchwomen to the press (if they ever were). Nowadays, we need to cover our institutions as a reporter might — seeing them as communities where interesting stuff is happening all the time — and then creating and telling those stories about our institutions to our various audiences. Those audiences include the traditional media outlets we’ve always served as well as newer audiences, those that are inside or closely connected to our institutions, and those social-media influentials who can share the stories even farther than they would otherwise go.
At the same time, media relations pros need to be social media-savvy, able and willing to monitor social media for mentions of their institutions. We need to be ready to share those mentions that could cast their college or university in a positive light. We also need to take on the role of curator, to collect and share stories — those we create and those covered by third parties — with our audiences.
What did I miss?
P.S. – If you enjoyed this post, I suggest you also check out a virtual roundtable discussion titled The Future of Public Relations in Higher Ed, moderated and curated by (who else?) Georgy Cohen and featuring me and three very savvy PR/digital pros: @tracymueller, @loripa and @bonnerj. Even though that post is two years old, much of what we discussed then is still relevant today.