Embargoes: stranglehold or service?

PIOnet is mildly abuzz today with chatter pertaining to Monday’s Inside Higher Ed piece about the embargo system employed by science journals (“The Embargo Should Go,” by Vincent Kiernan).

Kiernan’s premise is that science writers have a love-hate relationship with the embargo practice. While reporters like Natalie Angier of The New York Times believe that “the embargo system gives journal editors ‘a stranglehold on journalistic initiative’,” Kiernan notes that “[j]ournalists are enthusiastic participants in the embargo system and act to keep it functioning. In short, if journalists are in a stranglehold, it is a self-inflicted stranglehold — and one that does not serve the public interest.”

It need not be this way. Journalists could do end runs around the embargo, if they wanted. “Any decent journalist knows what’s in Nature next week,” says David Whitehouse, science editor for the BBC’s Web site. That point is exemplified by Robin McKie, science reporter for The London Observer. He writes for a paper that publishes only on Sundays; because of the embargo’s timing, journal articles seem like old news by the time his paper publishes. Consequently, McKie refuses embargoed access to journals but nevertheless has broken news of important embargoed studies such as the cloning of Dolly and the results of decoding of the human genetic sequence. Much of his reporting, he says, is based on talks given by researchers at open meetings.

On the PIOnet listserv, one PR guy noted that embargoes have become “part of marketing efforts for particular journals. They usually serve no journalistic function. Whenever someone comes to me and wants me to embargo a news release, they have to come up with a pretty powerful story even to get my attention.”

Wrote another PIO:

… [S]cience/medical writers already have a variety of options other than doing pack journalism: they can go to science conferences, peruse abstracts, press releases, tip sheets…….the very things that seem to be getting disparaged here [in Kiernan’s article].

Instead of covering the same thing many other writers are covering, an enterprising reporter can find a wealth of fascinating, context-rich stories in the material sent out by PIOs. PIOs always have compelling stories on tap for enterprising reporters — stories that go begging. …

Those press releases and tip sheets aren’t the problem. The problem, I think, can be that enterprising science/medical don’t realize that those releases and tip sheets are signposts that can lead them into a world of original, and perhaps, exclusive, reporting opportunities. And with the substantial output of material from universities daily, enterprising reporters hardly have to worry about stepping on each other’s toes chasing the same one or two stories.

How better to get your nose under the tent that to make a point of following up on more of those press releases and tip sheets? They’re not the only way to get your nose under the tent, but they are surely a quick, effective way to discover stories — and new sources — that can be a font of future enterprise pieces and new contacts.

Let’s hear it for the PIOs!

Yes, let’s. Huzzah!

A lot of great work is happening on college campuses that doesn’t make it into the scientific journals. Much of it isn’t necessarily of the breakthrough quality the big-league science journalists are looking for. Some of it is applied research that is leading to innovations in the marketplace. Some of it is student-centered research that doesn’t find its way into Nature or Science, but into smaller journals.
Maybe the real stranglehold here isn’t the embargo system, but science journalists’ reliance on the journals for their news.

Then again, maybe the problem is like that encountered by another PIOnet member, who wrote this about his experience at a conference organized by science writers from the New York Times:

I spent almost the entire time defending PIOs and news releases. They were very negative towards us and put down news releases. I brought up a few stories they had developed from news releases — a few were mine, most were from others.

I not only didn’t get my bang for the buck, but any good reputation they might have had with me took a nose dive.

Unless things have changed — I don’t know because I have never gone back — if the NYT science writers are any indication, there may not be many “enterprising” science writers out there looking at news releases.


A prospective student’s guide to college marketing

Two years ago, Sam Jackson, a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy, started blogging about his search for a college. His blog, the Sam Jackson College Experience, offers his perspective on an array of issues that should be of interest to higher ed marketers.

Sam on web vs. print marketing:

“How much thought went into making this?” That’s the first thing I ask myself when I get something. This is why thin envelopes filled with nothing but bland “please consider” form letters are used as coasters and never make it to my “keep for later” pile. It’s also why I delete on sight most of those summer school e-mails. If you got my name from the Student Search service and make that fact painfully obvious, don’t expect me to consider your 25 cent investment in my contact information hugely indicative of your interest in me. Likewise, just because you e-mail me five times after I don’t respond to your first form e-mail asking me to “please request” something, doesn’t mean I’m going to care any more about it the sixth time.

Sam on the value of student blogging:

More would read them if they knew about them (when I point a friend to a blog from a student / adcoms at a school they’re interested in, they tend to become frequent visitors) but at the same time, my friends and I are more inclined to trust the statements of bloggers who maintain a strict independence from the institution they are blogging about. …
For the admissions-flavored blogs, we look at them — or at least, I look at them–and regard them as a different type of marketing. Something else to be looked at and considered when thinking about schools and admissions, but something which has to be looked at in the same sense that the viewbook or postcards that inundate our mailboxes are received.

Sam on his visit to Yale:

I would say that he [the admissions rep] fairly and accurately presented Yale as an institution, focusing more (as administrative officials are wont to do) on the administrative side of things, though what he said about student life was well-received. Jackson said that Yale looked first and foremost to student transcripts when considering applicants — grades and rigor. Not surprising, but worth knowing, even if was a little disheartening given my 2nd quintile lifetime performance to date.

There’s more — much more — worthwhile reading here, so take a look, and tell your admissions officers to have a look, too. Sam Jackson may not be representative of next year’s freshman class at your institution (certainly not ours), but still, his thoughts are worth pondering, and his blog is a service to all of us in the higher ed marketing business.

Hat tip to Karine Joly, who interviews Sam on her blog.

Friday five: college wranglings

It’s that time of year again: students returning to class, and U.S. News & World Report‘s annual rankings of America’s “best” colleges. Campus admissions officers, deans, presidents, faculty and PR folks across the nation are now scrutinizing the lists, comparing where they fall on the list to the rankings of their competitors, wondering why they slipped or rose in a certain category and lamenting the unjustness of a system that would exclude their institution from, say, the “best values” list. No doubt factions at every university in the nation — other than Princeton, that is — will spend hours critiquing the U.S. News methodology today.
So, before I begin my earnest investigation into how my employer rose from No. 51 in last year’s ranking of best engineering programs to 48 this year but dropped from No. 109 to 112 among national universities, let’s see what the blogosphere and mainstream media have to say about the rankings:

  1. From Tony’s Kansas City, an opinion about the tie in the rankings between two Big 12 universities known for their “border wars” in sports: Equally worthless schools tie in meaningless list.
  2. U.S. News rankings: What they mean for RIT is a post from a PR staffer at Rochester Institute of Technology. It’s a valiant attempt to make sense of the whole rankings hubbub and offer some perspective. “The U.S. News report is only one list and should be put into context with many other variables when determining the reputation and prestige of any university.” That’s pretty much our standard line, too.
  3. An op-ed piece from Ohio State’s student newspaper comparing OSU’s U.S. News ranking from last year (60th) with its No. 27 designation in yet another publication’s list. The op-ed piece wrongly asserts that “U.S. News’ much maligned college ranking system is based solely on academic quality.” It is not. Reputation, exclusivity, fund-raising and other factors come into play in the U.S. News rankings, too.
  4. Look beyond ‘U.S. News’ for college quality, an opinion piece by John A. Roush, president of Centre College, who criticizes U.S. News and other rankings organizations for relying on “flawed research methodology and inaccurately reported data.” He adds: “My real worry about the rankings and the guides is that they are based almost exclusively on ‘inputs’ — the size of a college’s endowment, for example, or the percentage of Ph.D.s on the faculty, or the median GPA of incoming freshmen. Such quantitative criteria, while important, say nothing about what actually takes place when a student attends and graduates from your institution.”
  5. Only in Chicago: Recount helps university rise in magazine’s ranking.

Feds investigate ‘fake news’ (aka VNRs)

In a move that could spell trouble for purveyors of video news releases (VNRs), the Federal Communications Commission is investigating 77 TV stations about whether they “failed to tell viewers about the sponsors behind corporate video releases presented as news, a practice criticized by watchdog groups who say showing ‘fake news’ is an illegal breach of trust with local communities” (Mediaweek story, via FlackLife, who doesn’t like VNRs).

Jonathan Adelstein of the FCC says: “The public has a legal right to know who seeks to persuade them so they can make up their own minds about the credibility of the information presented. Shoddy practices make it difficult for viewers to tell the difference between news and propaganda.”

So where does the fault lie? With the news organizations, or with the PR agencies and offices that send them out? We’ve used VNRs a few times, but with mixed results. Small-market TV stations that don’t have the staff to travel the 60-100 miles to our campus to cover an event appreciate the footage. Big-city stations will have nothing to do with them.
These days, we don’t even try. We’ve concluded that VNRs just aren’t worth the time and energy they require. When we send out news releases to TV stations and have some video available, we let them know. But usually if they want to do the story, they send their own crews.

Over the past year, we’ve been setting up accounts and posting promotional video on all the high-profile video sites (YouTube, MySpace, Google Video and Current TV) and on our video website.
How about you? How do you get video out to the masses?

Great thinkers in modern marketing

Dana VanDen Heuvel is looking for some names for his 50 greatest thinkers in modern marketing project. He’s planning to do a post on each of the great thinkers on his blog. Sounds like a fascinating project. He’s already listed the few who came to my mind (Philip Kotler, Seth Godin, Ries and Trout). Any ideas? Post ’em here.

Failure to re-launch? Or ‘subtle evolution’?

Should organizations make a big deal about doing a major overhaul and re-launch of their web sites? Jared Spool, a usability design engineer who blogs at UIE Brain Sparks, thinks organizations would be better off making incremental change. In The Quiet Death of the Major Re-Launch, he writes that over his 10 years of work with web design, “if we’ve learned anything, it’s that redesigns rarely improve a site.”

“At best,” he writes, a redesign “just rearranges the elements. At worst, it frustrates the existing, loyal users without bringing anything valuable to all those new users the site is trying to attract.”

Spool wrote about this way back in 2003 (that was two re-launches ago for UMR) and urged organizations to consider “subtle evolution” as a way to incorporate changes on websites. He pointed out a few high-profile, real-world examples — Amazon, Yahoo and eBay — that have all benefited from this philosophy.

Friday Five: higher ed’s future, web buzzwords, the blogging boom, and garage rock

Five things on my mind this Friday:

  1. What’s really going to happen with the recommendations put forth in the Commission on the Future of Higher Education’s final draft (pdf)? The report calls for “a broad shake-up” (as The New York Times put it) of the U.S. higher ed system. But the report is a far cry from Chairman Charles Miller’s desire for a “punchy report that would rattle academia with warnings of crisis”; a number of educational groups are criticizing the report; and the lone dissenter on the 19-member panel, American Council of Education President David Ward, is getting considerable mileage out of his contention that the report is one-sided. At least one blogger — ePluribus Media — suggests the report is “just what the Chair (read: Secretary) ordered.” If you don’t have time to read the full report, read the Times article, and maybe take a gander at ePluribus Media’s commentary about the report.
  2. Web what-dot-evah. Morgan Davis’ erelevant blog is brand new, but he’s off to a great start. His recent post, Buzzword 2.0, takes a lot of us to task for tossing “web 2.0” around in conversations and on our blogs (guilty). His advice: “let’s work on using alternative words and phrases to describe the concepts that we mean by web 2.0.”
  3. 50 million blogs, 18.6 posts per second. Just a few of the fun facts Dave Sifri, the founder of Technorati, shares in his latest state of the blogosphere report. With lots and lots of colorful charts.
  4. Speaking of buzzwords … Here’s a new one for you: clique-through. According to this blog review of a presentation on marketing with social media, it means: “The degree to which an exclusive group hears and accepts your idea. Cliques are built upon norms and group culture. To be accepted means to be built into that culture. To be effective, focus on the clique, not the wide audience.” You heard it here first.
  5. Now playing: Runaway Bombshell, by the Fondas. Great Detroit garage rock for a Friday morning’s blog reading.