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The Brand (Brave?) New World Of Online Public Relations

Ready or not, IHEs must strategize about how they appear in mentions on the web.
University Business, Apr 2006

Dan Rather hasn't been the only casualty of the brave new world of blog swarms. In a speech to the Denver Forum civic group she gave last August, former University of Colorado President Elizabeth Hoffman said she wished she would have assigned one of her staffers to read political blogs every day, as reported later in The Denver Post.

Hoffman resigned in March 2005 in the wake of two major scandals caused by the institution's football recruiting practices and Professor Ward Churchill's essay comparing some victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks to "Little Eichmanns," referencing a known Nazi official.

Influential bloggers played a major role in exposing (and fueling?) these scandals. In her speech, Hoffman recalled that "one of the first mentions of Churchill's essay appeared on a blog called 'little green footballs' after the professor was invited to speak at Hamilton College (N.Y.)." Within 10 minutes of the posting, people were asking Gov. Bill Owens to tell her to fire Churchill.

Scary, isn't it?

The explosion of consumer-generated online media has ushered in an era of invasive and pervasive transparency. While some big companies, small businesses, news outlets, political figures, and institutions of higher ed have understood the associated opportunities and risks, the majority are still ignoring the brand-new world of the "read/write web." In this world, anybody can write anything about an institution and potentially have it read by either millions of people or a handful of influential individuals: trustees, lawmakers, major donors, or news reporters.

Yes, newspaper, radio, and TV journalists do read blogs. Last spring, the 11th Annual Euro RSCG Magnet and Columbia University Survey of the Media found that 51 percent of the 1,202 journalists questioned use blogs regularly; 28 percent rely on them for day-to-day reporting. Also, 53 percent of these journalists who read blogs reported doing so to find story ideas, 43 percent to research and reference facts, 36 percent to find sources, and 33 percent as a way to uncover breaking news or scandals.

So, what can you do? Know your enemies, find allies, embrace the change, and listen to your institution's experts. "A lot of academic PR professionals would like to be doing more but are having difficulty persuading their administrative colleagues that the new media have to be taken seriously, and that there's much to be gained by getting ahead of the curve," says Dan Forbush, president of ProfNet, a PR Newswire service, and editor of the website Future of PR, which is dedicated to the new paradigm. And although we are just witnessing its emergence, a few pioneers in higher education have already started to develop interesting strategies, both to weather the dangers and take advantage of new possibilities.

"The beauty of these new technologies is the same thing that scares a lot of folks-micromedia provide direct, cheap, easy access to your institution and the folks who are a part of it. This is the true no-spin zone," analyzes Charlie Melichar, vice president of Public Relations and Communications at Colgate University (N.Y).

Your institution should closely monitor blogs and other consumer-generated online media. They can be powerful research tools on your target audiences by providing very useful insights on people's general state of mind and their opinion about your organization. "Blogs can provide some fantastic information on perceptions," says Melichar. "The best part is that posts tend to be very straightforward-folks peel back the veneer a bit when posting, which leads to some really rich content."

Just as you wouldn't ignore what the traditional press writes or says, you should keep an eye on what the new media publish about your institution.

At Duke University (N.C.), blogs get special handling. Besides monitoring coverage in the conventional media, says David Jarmul, associate vice president of News and Communications, "we've added blogs to our coverage, mainly by having a student search on Technorati [a real-time search engine for weblogs] several times a week."

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) helps make tracking web happenings, well, simple. "I keep an eye on Technorati personally via an RSS feed that appears on my desktop whenever a blog publishes something about Duke. As blogs continue to gain popularity, we want to know what they're saying about us," Jarmul says.

Duke goes a step further, too, by sending press releases and pitching story ideas to selected bloggers. "We've encouraged bloggers to write about subjects ranging from Duke students flying in NASA's 'Vomit Comet' to research on how babies explore objects," explains Jarmul.

Such blogger relations programs are good. But web technologies and practices can offer much more: effective, reliable, and direct information delivery channels.

Popularized by blogs, RSS will probably become the format of choice to deliver press releases, news, or other announcements, reserving e-mail for more personal exchanges and solving, by the same token, the growing spam-filtering issue. "It's hard to predict why some things are routed to the junk mail box," says Dick Jones, principal of Pennsylvania-based Dick Jones Communications. The firm, which currently has 18 IHEs as clients, is looking into allowing higher education journalists to access its site through an RSS feed to get the latest news from those colleges. By delivering targeted information to people subscribing to any online news feed properly set up, RSS can change the way IHEs communicate with journalists, but also students, parents, alums, donors, staff, and faculty.

Supported by most blogging platforms, RSS has been the key to the general success of blogs and their adoption as public relations vehicles for more and more IHEs.

"Much of our efforts are focused on the media, locally and nationally. Having a blog cuts out the middleman and gets our message directly into the hands of people who are interested," says Silandara Bartlett-Gustina, news and web specialist at Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.). Bartlett-Gustina, who is also one of the bloggers for RIT's PR department blog, The Tiger Beat, adds that it "allows us to join the conversation with other bloggers. As more and more people-especially those in our target audiences-look to blogs for information, we need to be part of that."

At Arizona State University, blogs are used to relay messages to a 60,000-student population located on several campuses. Marching in the footsteps of his technology officer, Adrian Sannier, ASU President Michael Crow started to blog on The President's Post a few months ago. "Blogging provides an opportunity for more give and take with students," says Crow. "By posting a comment or a response to a student inquiry to the blog rather than writing an e-mail response to a single student, there is a broader distribution of information to students and an opportunity for greater input from other students on the same topic. Blogging can also be less formal and will perhaps make communication with the president more approachable and interesting."

Other IHEs are experimenting with "wikis" (community-edited websites) and podcasting as direct communication channels to their target audiences. Following the model of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, Case Western Reserve University's wiki offers background information about the Cleveland institution. Staff, faculty, and students can contribute to what aims to become a comprehensive reference resource.

Stanford, meanwhile, uses podcasting to offer audio recordings of events or lectures to its alums worldwide. And the University of Florida's news podcasts allow students and staff to stay up-to-date with happenings on campus.

More and more IHEs have realized that the good old press release won't be enough soon. If you currently have effective public relations programs without incorporating blogs, RSS, wikis, or podcasts, this won't be the case for long.

So, why not listen to your web or PR professionals' advice today?

Melichar of Colgate puts it very simply: "We need to follow the path being beaten by our audiences: Go where they already are. If they're on iTunes, downloading podcasts-we need to be there. If they're using a feed reader to collect news, we need to provide RSS feeds. Make it as easy as possible for folks to access the content that is meaningful to them."

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.

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