Friday Five: Random access reads

A quick Friday Five this week: A potpourri of reads — on branding, media, advertising, work and self-improvement — that caught my attention: Continue reading “Friday Five: Random access reads”


The #PR proliferation problem

America now has nearly five PR flacks for every journalist (image via Muck Rack Daily)
America now has nearly five PR flacks for every journalist (image via Muck Rack Daily)

If you work on the media relations side of higher ed communications, you may have noticed that it’s becoming more and more of a challenge to get a journalist’s attention. A recent Muck Rack Daily article may help explain why. Continue reading “The #PR proliferation problem”

AP style vs. substance

AP StylebooksWhat has gotten into those crusty curmudgeons who edit the Associated Press Stylebook?

For those of you whose own in-house editorial style leans heavily on the AP Stylebook — the self-proclaimed “journalist’s bible” — you may have heard about a couple of big changes to the rules. AP announced them earlier this spring.

They are:

More than vs. over

In March, the editors ruled that the use of over to define quantity is acceptable as a synonym for more than. This change, as Poynter noted, “rock[ed] copy editors to their very cores.”

Prior to the change, over was acceptable only when describing physical proximity. Our plane flew over Kansas on the way to Colorado. Now, over may be used to describe quantity. We have over hundreds in stock.

Nitpicky? Sure. But for those of us reared (not “raised”) on the rules of AP style, this is a significant change. We’ve been replacing “over” with “more than” for years, and some of us took a certain sort of perverse joy by explaining to the edited why “over” was unacceptable. As a colleague told me the other day: “How am I supposed to feel superior to others now?” It’s a dilemma for sure.

As for me, I’m not bothered by this change. “Over” is more economical than “more than,” so it saves space. Five spaces, to be precise. And it saves me the hassle of trying to explain why I took such pains to change a simple word in copy. So, I’m OK with over, even though some aren’t. As for the debate, I’m more than over it.

Spelling out state names

While some of us were still reeling over the AP’s acceptance of over as a synonym for more than, the stylebook editors throw another curve ball just a month later.

In April, AP announced that starting May 1, state names should be spelled out in body copy. Even when following a city. So instead of writing “Rolla, Mo.” (using the antiquated, pre-postal code abbreviation for the state) we’re supposed to write “Rolla, Missouri.”

What the…?

Another arcane AP style rule bites the dust.

As Poynter reported, AP made the change “to be consistent in our style for domestic and international stories. International stories have long spelled out state names in the body of stories.”

I can buy that. We live in and communicate with global audiences. Consistency is good.

But the AP’s historic tendency to favor economy (i.e., shorter is better) falls by the wayside here.

I can live with this style change, too. But I have compassion for those of you in Mississippi and Massachusetts.

* * *

It boils down to this: Language and our use of it evolves. It’s good to see the AP — often considered a dinosaur of journalism and writing — evolving along with it.

Photo: “The old school rules, spiral bound” – by AllaboutGeorge on Flickr

Friday Five: #highered takeaways from the New York Times innovation team

Nytimes_hqSince the advent of the online era, The New York Times has been a leader in digital journalism and multimedia storytelling.

Yet, as the recently leaked report from the Times’ newsroom innovation team points out, the organization is struggling — just like the rest of us — to find the ideal approach for reaching new audiences and developing the products and delivery methods that best meet the needs of these new audiences.

On Thursday, the Nieman Journalism Lab posted an in-depth look at the innovation team’s soul-searching report. As I read through the Nieman post last night, then skimmed the actual report this morning, I was struck by some of the similarities between The New York Times‘ struggles and those we face in the higher ed content creation and marketing business. Our challenges may not scale to the Times‘ level, but neither do our resources for creating content. But the Times’ struggles are our struggles. We could find some valuable insights from the newsroom innovation team report that apply to our web, PR, branding or marketing offices.

1. Reconsider the home page

The number of visitors to the New York Times home page has been shrinking. Fewer readers go there to start their journey into the Timescontent. More readers are finding their way to the content they’re interested in from other sources.

Isn’t that also the case with much of our content? Earlier this week, I was looking at Google analytics data regarding one particular news release that was posted on our university’s news site but also linked prominently from our home page. We posted that news release on our Facebook page on Tuesday. The analytics showed that, for that particular day, 89 percent of the 6,000-plus visits to that bit of content came by way of that Facebook post. The other 11 percent of visitors found it through various other sources, including the home page.

The home page problem is probably a thousand times more problematic for a college or university, because it’s supposedly the most visible bit of digital turf in a .edu’s online presence. But what does the data show? How are people finding our content? (Not only news content or storytelling content, but information for prospective students, donors, research partners and myriad other audiences?) Is the home page really the online “front door” of the university when social media has provided so many other pathways.

Maybe it’s time we rethink the purpose of the home page.

2. Experiment more

Nieman picked up on the point that someone not affiliated with the Times created a flipboard magazine of the Times’ best obits from 2013 “on a whim.” that product “became the best-read collection ever on Flipboard. Why wasn’t the Times doing stuff like that on its own platforms, the report wondered.”

The Times‘ rigid approach to reporting and adherence to style and standards sometimes gets in the way of experimenting with new forms of digital storytelling. (Even though the Times remains a paragon of digital storytelling, in my opinion.) “We must push back against our perfectionist impulses,” the innovation team report says. “Though our journalism always needs to be polished, our other efforts can have some rough edges as we look for new ways to reach our readers.”

How about us, higher ed? Are we willing to experiment with new forms of sharing and packaging our content for the audiences we’re trying to reach? Many of us are using tools like Storify to weave together a new approach. But we could be experimenting more.

3. Repackage and reuse

People in the news business can become so obsessed with the “new” that they forget some of their best stories from the past can be repackaged and reused. The idea of the “evergreen” story (one that is not time-sensitive and can run anytime) is nothing new to journalism. But once something runs once, we (those in the news business and those of us in higher ed content marketing) tend to relegate it to the archives.

How open are we in higher ed to reusing and repackaging our previously published content?

4. Tagging our content

“The Times is woefully behind in its tagging and structured data practices,” Nieman reports. It took them seven years after 9/11 to start tagging those stories appropriately. “We never made a tag for Benghazi,” said one team member, “and I wish we had because the story just won’t die.” The report mentions the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal as two news organizations that do tagging well.

How well are we in higher ed tagging our content? The better we tag, the easier we make it for people to find what they’re looking for, and the better those stories fare in online searches.

5. Archive marketing 

We talk a lot about content marketing. What about marketing our archives of content?

The Times has 14.7 million articles in its archives dating back to 1851. Yet the Times left it to Gawker to dig up a 161-year old article relevant to the release of 12 Years A Slave. The Times needs to do a better job of resurfacing its archived content when relevant.

In higher ed, we may not benefit from such a trove of content. But we should think about our archived news releases, magazine articles, yearbook content and other available archived materials that could be relevant today. At Missouri S&T, our assistant director of communications, Mindy Limback, is great at sifting through the archives to find this kind of relevant commencement content.

* * *

None of us is The New York Times. But as I said at the outset, we can learn from the best. Perhaps it’s time for our own “content marketing innovation team” approach in higher ed.

What is the ‘media’ of social media?

Is this what social media looks like?
Is this what social media looks like?

Sometimes we become so immersed in a thing that we can’t distance ourselves from it enough to think critically about it. Like air. It’s all around us, and unless something happens to disrupt its usual quality, we rarely give it much thought.

And then sometimes we can’t think critically about a thing because we bring our own biases and pre-conceived ways of thinking about the thing that we can’t fathom any other perspective.

For those of us who work in social media, we probably don’t understand this thing as well as we could, and for a combination of the two reasons I mention above. First, we’re too immersed in our social media work to view it with much detachment. Second, and we filter our understanding of it through our own biases or the requirements of our job on how we use it. If I’m a marketer, for example, then my marketing background is going to affect how I view social media.

Viewing through a different lens

Lately I’ve been thinking more about our understanding of social media — or our lack of understanding — because of something I read in the early pages of John Naughton’s book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet.

By comparing the communications revolution spawned by the Internet to that which arose from Gutenberg’s printing press some 550-plus years ago, Naughton — a British academic,  blogger and tech columnist — draws some interesting parallels. But first, he provides some context about how to think about the Internet and all its trappings. At one point, he suggests that some of us may be viewing this thing called social media through the wrong lens.

Like many of you, I have a background in communications — in my case, journalism. Whenever journalists, marketers, strategic communicators and others with similar academic and vocational backgrounds think about a “medium,” the singular of media, we tend to think about a conduit of information. Television is one medium of communication. A newspaper is another.

“The conventional — journalistic — interpretation holds that a medium is a carrier of something,” writes Naughton.

That’s how I typically think of social media: as a carrier of information. That’s how I was trained to think of any sort of media, social or otherwise.

A global Petri dish?

But as Naughton points out, a biologist may offer a different perspective on the word.

In biology, media are used to grow tissue cultures — living organisms. … It seems to me that this is a useful metaphor for thinking about human society; it portrays our social system as a living organism that depends on a media environment for the nutrients it needs to survive and develop.

Perhaps that’s what this thing we call social media is. Maybe it’s more than just a communications conduit — more than a “series of tubes,” as one out-of-touch politician put it many years ago.

Maybe it’s a type of global, interconnected Petri dish that provides the digital nutrients our interconnected world needs to sustain the increasingly complex, interdependent and internetworked social systems.

And because we’re all immersed in this giant Petri dish, we can’t fully understand its impact — no more than a jellyfish could comprehend how it and seaweed both thrive in the waters of the sea.

This brings me to the question I’m grappling with: If we were to start thinking of social media more as an ecosystem and less as a carrier of information, how would that change our approaches — vocational and personal — to social media?

Media relations in a disintermediated world

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.

yellow-journalismThis 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

  1. 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. “
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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.
  5. 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).
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

Photo: Newspaper sunny yellow by Jon S/NS Newsflash via Flickr.

The end of Newsweek: A turning point for magazines?

A collection of recent Newsweeks, which sit, unread, on my desk.

Today’s announcement by The Newsweek Daily Beast Co. (yes, that is the company’s real, official name) that it is ceasing publication of the once-venerable newsmagazine Newsweek probably comes as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to the recent history of that magazine. When Newsweek was acquired by The Daily Beast in 2010, the publication was already struggling. Then Fareed Zakaria, who was probably Newsweek‘s biggest franchise, jumped ship to join TIME magazine. Editor-in-chief Tina Brown “seemed to continually push the Newsweek half of Newsweek/Daily Beast to the back burner—when she wasn’t cooking up desperate, attention-seeking covers,” writes Dashiell Bennett in The Atlantic Wire’s coverage of today’s announcement. Brown’s sensationalism is something I mentioned in a recent blog post about Newsweek‘s coverage of the state of higher education.

So now, Brown and company are transmogrifying their publication into an all-digital something-or-other to be called Newsweek Global. Writes The Newsweek Daily Beast Co.’s CEO Baba Shetty, the “single, worldwide edition” will be “targeted for a highly mobile, opinion-leading audience who want to learn about world events in a sophisticated context. Newsweek Global will be supported by paid subscription and will be available through e-readers for both tablet and the Web, with select content available on The Daily Beast.”

The demise of the print version of Newsweek was inevitable, I suppose. As Slate’s Matthew Yglesias points out, a weekly newsmagazine is no longer relevant in today’s always-on digital world.

In the era of print newspapers and nightly TV news, newsweeklies provided the extremely valuable function of timely up-to-date coverage of news and culture that didn’t rely on you literally checking the same news source every single day. The Internet in some ways exacerbates the dysfunctionalities of the daily news cycle by promoting relentless over-hyping of everything that occurs, but Google makes it trivially simple to just find a news story from Monday if you’re interest in reading about it on Thursday. There’s no need for a digest format and if you do great original reporting you want to publish that reporting as soon as possible not sit on it for two days to wait for a magazine distribution process.

I’m going to miss my print version of Newsweek. But Yglesias is right. It’s no longer relevant. The last two issues have been lingering on my “to read” pile for days, untouched. The commentary is really the only thing worth reading anymore, but after Zakaria left and they brought in Niall Ferguson, the quality has slipped, in my opinion.

Anyway, the folding of Newsweek may signal a turning point for the magazine industry. Or perhaps it’s just the latest chapter in the decline of print, precipitated by the Internet. General-interest media are losing ground to special-interest media, and that trend will likely continue.

Maybe this new Newsweek Global will thrive and set a shining example for higher ed to follow. All-digital alumni magazines, anyone?