Just as increased competition exists in the global business environment, so too is it present in the university marketplace. Universities compete for donations, grants, and endowments as well as the best students, professors, and staff. As such, the more positive press coverage an institution gets, the greater the likelihood it will be successful in achieving its overall growth goals.
Why? Because positive press comes from the decision a university makes to address these key areas:
1. Awaken awareness. Gone are the days when a university’s mere presence and longevity in a given area secured its enrollment numbers year after year. With increased competition, universities need to spend more time reevaluating what it takes to maintain a strong, local presence and which are the most lucrative niches to focus on. Since there is a direct correlation between level of awareness and market share, part of an institution’s commitment must be to consistently and proactively promote its image.
2. Manage the mission statement. On many university websites, the mission statement sits proudly amid the first paragraph of the introductory page. It’s a smart move because it helps capitalize on the unifying effects of a mission statement. When articulated clearly and promoted in the press, it really acts as a tribute to that which makes the university special.
3. Support the vision. Vision statements represent a tacit promise on behalf of the university to those who are willing to climb on board and make the journey with them. Offering a vision statement is a way for universities to “wow” stakeholders with their ideas about what the future holds, which is certainly a strong call to action when it comes to press coverage.
4. Reach target markets. To maximize press coverage, it’s important to identify the right messages and the right audiences. Most colleges and universities have several groups to target including the existing student population, administrative staff, teaching faculty, media, investors, community members, and the government. Profiling them and developing a clear picture of each are critical to knowing how to reach special interest groups. Only then can a university advance its image in a positive light.
5. Support fundraising initiatives. What does fundraising have to do with getting press coverage? Everything, just ask the college president. Savvy university presidents build strong partnerships with those who know how to carry out the university’s vision and mission and capitalize on the ability to bring in the dollars.
6. Strengthen relations with alumni. If alumni interest and support for their alma mater falters, an institution’s competitive edge does too. Without a strong, ongoing alumni outreach program, universities are likely to fail in their attempts to build brand awareness.
It is important for colleges and universities to research hard, plan smart and execute wisely when it comes to public relations planning. Media options are abundant, but they can be broken down into three main categories:
1. The internet. This is a good starting point, and one that will most likely continue to grow in the future. Universities that embrace the internet quickly learn that it is the speediest, most economical and most trouble-free way to spread the word about what is happening on and off campus to stakeholders. In his book, Power and Influence (McGraw-Hill, 2007), Robert L. Dilenschneider writes, “Effective marketing influence means reaching consumers at their most receptive moment.” This principle applies here too. Another advantage to using the internet for PR is the absence of a gatekeeper. The university controls editorial content and doesn’t have to worry about the stringent controls that may limit other media.
2. Traditional media. Radio has become more powerful in its ability to create an image in certain markets. It offers a variety of formats and specialty markets, most of which have limited yet loyal audiences. Although TV is seen as the medium with the broadest reach, many PR people recommend cable television as a starting point. A university’s presence on a special-interest cable TV channel will reach an audience that may be smaller, but also may be more demographically qualified.
Some say news releases are passé, while others believe they remain the backbone of a university’s press campaign. The latter is the more valid statement because one of the quickest ways to get on TV, radio or in the press is to issue a news release. Other common forms of print press coverage include quarterly or monthly newsletters, annual reports and self-published newspapers or magazines. Examples of messages that lend themselves well to news releases include:
— Soon-to-be introduced class schedules
— Newly hired professors/promotions
— News about awards/honors celebrations
— Stories regarding research breakthroughs and advancements
— Department expansion plans
3. Campus events. These are essential because they raise the institution’s profile, build student loyalty, generate interest and reinforce the positive reputation of the campus. High profile events are one of the few ways a university can create a positive perception in the mind of the public. Aligning an institution with the sponsorship of a new literary program, a newly developed scholarship grant, or the donation of a new art sculpture creates opportunities for moments that become memorable and significant, as well as reach a step above what is covered regularly. Carefully planning the key components of a university event is the best way to end up with the right coverage through the right medium. Learning the art of event management for a university is a fundamental PR skill that, when done well, pays dividends again and again.
In order for institutions of higher education to convey an image, they need to first establish standards and maintain them. Too often a university is quick to modify its focus in the name of accommodating a politically charged issue. Matters like this can tear down a reputation that has taken years to build. Having standards in place can also help to counter the generalizations that permeate college campuses when tragedy occurs on just one. Within hours, the story is being discussed as though it had a domino effect on all campuses. Working against these stereotypes is one good reason to be securely tied to an image. Damage control and media relations are two ways of managing press coverage that help build and sustain that image.
— Damage control. One of the toughest parts about managing press coverage is when it involves a campus crisis. Doing damage control can be tricky, but savvy professionals know the rules and actions required. For example, when a crisis occurs, information and communication are essential. These actions reduce fears and represent the quickest path to reversing the negative impact of a crisis. That way, people aren’t left to figuring it out with their own imagination. Recommendations to be open and honest about a crisis extend beyond student body and faculty to the media. Once the press feel they’ve been addressed, they’re much more likely to back off.
— Media relations. Media relations (MR) refers to the job of coordinating information, messages and activities with members of the press, not the general public. While each university’s MR department might be structured differently, the goals are still the same — to make sure the right media outlets know what’s happening on campus. At Brown University (R.I.), Media Relations is an office within Public Affairs and University Relations (PAUR). Mark Nickel is director of university communications at Brown. “There are four media relations specialists and the director in the department,” Nickel says. He explains how Brown University hires media specialists that can speak the language of the type of media coverage they’re soliciting. “The specialists are organized by beat: life sciences, physical sciences, humanities and social sciences and broadcast media. We handle media relations for the entire university, excluding sports.” Specialist is the key word here. Media professionals are just like any other in that they steer clear of anyone who wastes their time. They know when a story is being overhyped and when it holds its own.
At Princeton (N.J.), five separate offices work to represent the University to its many publics, three of which are assigned to different levels of government. Another is the Office of the Alumni Council, and finally there’s the Office of Communications. The latter is where Cass Cliatt works as Princeton’s director of media relations. This office is headquarters for managing the University’s core website and home page, official University publications and managing interactions with commercial and news media. Unlike other schools, this function is centralized in a single office. “I am responsible for directing the University’s media strategy and news messaging. I am also the University’s principal spokesperson, serving the entire University community,” says Cliatt. “We are among the smallest media relations organizations of any of our peers. Princeton’s media relations team consists of a director and a media officer.” She explains how extra support comes from a staff writer who serves as a news media liaison between researchers in the natural sciences. Also, various departments help to manage media requests on behalf of their deans or directors. “They facilitate faculty intervals, as well as other communications, but they don’t serve as spokespeople.”
— Although an interview is supposed to sound like conversation, don’t go there. Be prepared for even the most routine interview with these tips on what to do before, during, and after an interview:
1. Get name of medium, as well as interviewer’s name and background.
2. Find out the topic of the story/article.
3. Learn through conversation who else the reporter will be speaking to for the article.
4. Determine all points you want to make and single out the most important.
5. Rehearse answers, but don’t memorize them.
1. Communicate the most important points first.
2. Don’t just state conclusions, but also identify how you came to them.
3. Use bridging techniques. (e.g. “—that reminds me of another point—”)
4. Look for opportunities to make important points even if you’re not asked.
5. Make sure the interviewer has your business card.
1. Get any additional information necessary to the interviewer.
2. Let the interviewer know if you liked or didn’t like the story.
3. Find out how other campus officials liked or didn’t like the story.
4. Research software to help you evaluate media coverage.
5. Consider a press-clipping bureau to help monitor the university’s coverage.
— If possible, find out in advance what questions will be asked. When responding, be prepared to answer them based on how the reporter asks the question. For example, consider these common question formats:
1. Clear-cut: These types of questions should get the same kind of answers.
2. Hypothetical: The only way to answer a hypothetical question is by surmising. Don’t get caught in this trap by simply deciding not to talk about “what ifs.”
3. Fact-filled: Questions that ask for responses to the results of a particular study can go unanswered if it hasn’t been read. Ask for a copy to comment on—after reading it.
4. Leading: When someone leads a question a particular way (e.g. “Don’t you think?”), don’t respond unless there’s total agreement, and then make sure to add the question in the response so there’s a solid answer.
5. Multiple-part: When someone asks a question that has a few different layers, pick which ones are most important to answer and stick to those.
— Of the many tips available for doing a TV interview, here are seven of the most essential:
1. Keep answers short.
2. Think of the microphone as the audience, but don’t look at the camera — look at the interviewer.
3. Become familiar with the format of the show.
4. Speak slowly and calmly.
5. Be comfortable if you pause for a couple of seconds.
6. If seated, sit leaning the slightest bit forward.
7. Don’t fiddle.
Managing image is really about managing perception, because perception becomes reality. Anne Ready, president and CEO of Ready for Media in Malibu, Calif., explains how managing perception can be as simple as remembering to say the institution’s name as much as possible. “Avoid the biggest mistake made in media coverage, which is not to name your college or university and instead saying, ‘we’ or ‘us.’ It’s vital to get your name in print and in sound bites.”
In addition, when thinking about creating and maintaining a desired image, consider this example: How do the names of certain colleges and universities become synonymous with specific professions? In California if a student wants to become a dentist, then USC quickly comes to mind. Yale conjures up law school images, and Columbia is known for its School of Journalism. Although these associations took years and years to evolve, they represent institutional images: built from truth, yet kept alive through the art of public relations.
Press coverage for the world of academia is more imperative now than it’s ever been. By having a plan in place, institutions can determine how their public groups perceive them, where their strengths are and where their shortcomings might have a negative impact on image. Then, it can start to close any gap between perception and reality.
Gerri Knilans is president of Trade Press Services, an editorial resource firm based in Thousand Oaks, Calif.