Perfecting the Pitch
Bill Tyson has been advising colleges and universities on getting media attention for more than 30 years through his firm Morrison & Tyson Communications. Now he's taken some of that knowledge and put it into Pitch Perfect: Communicating with Traditional and Social Media for Scholars, Researchers, and Academic Leaders (Stylus Publishing, 2010), a how-to guide for thoughtful communications planning that can increase the likelihood of national media coverage. He spoke with University Business about common misperceptions toward the role of public relations, and how effective partnerships can help get a message out to the broader public.
Tyson: There are two broad reasons. One is that they feel it's uncharacteristic to go outside the academy to talk about their work. They think their peers won't view it favorably if they are seen commenting in the mainstream media.
The other reason is simply that there are a lot of bashful people who feel their work wouldn't add new knowledge when, in fact, it probably would.
A friend once gave me some advice on that theme of being bashful: 'Get over yourself.' The discussion with media doesn't need to be about you. Your purpose can be that you want to convey knowledge. It's similar to what you do in the classroom as a professor. It isn't about you—it's your thrill and interest to convey information that helps individuals learn. This is an increasingly complicated world, and the public values greatly having knowledge based on facts. Who better than our academy to get out there and offer insight?
Tyson: Most reporters want to be contacted for a story by a targeted e-mail. But, to get to the top of the list, sometimes it's critical to make a call instead of relying on being bundled in e-mail. But remember, we're all busy. Common sense says you can't continually pick up the phone to have wandering conversations. Don't call if you don't have a story or, more important, if you don't know the reporter you're calling or his or her audience. Good media relations people don't pick up the phone unless they truly feel they have an important story.
Having said that, I don't know of a single reporter or editor in my 30 years that has not appreciated a good story when I've called. While they may not always have the time, and you may have to follow up later, they've heard what you said and it sparks an interest and begins a dialog.
Tyson: Yes, I do believe you should definitely take advantage of the media relations department if it's on your campus. That should be your first step, but not every institution has that resource. We work with institutes that are connected to a university, but they're not on the campus. It's really difficult physically to keep a constant contact going. Sometimes it is necessary, because the resource doesn't exist or isn't connected, to have institute directors deal with the media.
Tyson: It is critical to establish a relationship when working with the on-campus media relations office. If you're an administrator or faculty member, go to the media relations office right now and introduce yourself. Tell them what your expertise is, and where you think some of your stories may be unfolding in the coming months or year.
For example, if I'm a geologist specializing in earthquakes, and there's an earthquake in Chile, my central office should know about my expertise. And I should know my contact in the central office to call and say this story is breaking.
If I know media to contact, I will be doing that. If the central office can contact media as well, then they should. There can be quick coordination because I've made it a process and a partnership.
Tyson: I would remind readers of a recent Pew Research Center study that said 98 percent of the news reported on blogs comes from legacy media - in other words, traditional media. And of that 98 percent, the major suppliers of that news are The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and the BBC. So it still comes back to mainstream media.
Having said that, it's easy enough to aggregate blogs specific to your field of interest. I can quickly find a half-dozen blogs on education, environment, health, or climate change. But where I've seen time wasted is when people focus on blogs and leave mainstream media behind. I actually see that occurring more. It's easy to work at your screen. It's easy not to pick up the phone and call a reporter.
All media is important to telling your story but it's also important to realize the mix, and in our getting stories out to a national audience, mainstream legacy media are still key. Then you can use that as a springboard to work with social media.
Tyson: It's a lack of communication and a lack of understanding of the public relations profession. That's the public relations professional's fault. We do a terrible job of explaining what public relations is and is not. We've allowed others to define public relations, and what the role of the public relations professional should be. I don't tell an accountant how to count numbers. He or she tells me.
I believe there are a number of individuals in public relations who may be there because they are good writers, but they don't truly understand the profession of public relations. They see themselves more as technicians than leaders of a discussion about their profession. We need greater communications of what the profession can and can't do. The public relations professional also needs to work harder in helping faculty members understand what is news and what is not.
A faculty member will come into the office with a story he or she is excited about. The campus public relations professional will listen and dutifully judge the merits of that story. Oftentimes, it just isn't a story of major media interest, and that's where the conversation ends. That's why the faculty member leaves upset that 'they don't understand.'
But the public relations professional should say, 'Let's see what does make news regarding your story. How might we expand upon it to make it of interest to media?'
Then the faculty member in this partnership will learn from the professional what the ingredients for a story are so he or she can begin thinking about how news developments might connect to their research. That's the best communications, where it's a back-and-forth, where they're each respecting each other's profession and there is time to cultivate learning and understanding.
Tyson: That's right. They're not a service to take your story and contact the media. They are professionals who will listen to your story, discuss the elements of your story, and determine its media value. Ideally, they will look for points of interest or issues, if they're not already there, to help build that story. Maybe it can tie to an anniversary event, or it could be part of a trend, or it could relate to a legislative hearing.
Tyson: I do. As a media consultant that's one of the first discussions we have. We recognize the importance of a meaningful opinion piece, but it needs to be written by the author because of just what you say. You and other leading publications receive scores of opinion pieces, and you are pros at distinguishing ones that have heart. And if a committee writes an opinion piece it's bound to lack heart, and that's pretty obvious.
We don't write opinion pieces, nor do I suggest committees write opinion pieces because then they become more public relations documents. Public relations isn't about trying to create something that isn't there, so you shouldn't be writing an opinion piece if you don't feel it and if you don't know it. Let's not pretend, not at this level. That's the importance of this discussion. Media relations isn't a game; it's about conveying meaningful information.
Tyson: The first step is doing your homework to understand the individual's background and research, as it relates to current events. Then you meet with that individual. I don't know anything about astrophysics, for example, but if I've done my homework I can at least begin the conversation. I'll bring my media knowledge and story telling to the discussion, and the professor brings his or her academic expertise and willingness to convey that to a public audience. So it's stripping the language of jargon, trying to understand the story. You have a common goal, and you should each be on the same side. It's not a case where, for example, the research is plopped on my desk and I'm told to do something with it, while they wait for a return. It's investing time and establishing a meaningful relationship.