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Media Relations Boot Camp

With their institutions under the media microscope, college and university leaders must carefully consider every PR move they make.
University Business, Jan 2007

In a world of growing consumer distrust, new technology, and gotcha journalism, media relations pros in higher ed face an increasing number of challenges. Not only are they expected to defend, protect, and promote their institutions in good times and in bad, but they must do it with the utmost compassion, elegance, and honesty. It's a tough job that's multifaceted, multdimensional, and complicated.

And, given the media's growing interest in exposing college and university PR gaffes-seen through coverage of the University of Colorado at Boulder's football recruitment and professor Ward Churchill scandals, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers' controversial comments about women and science, and the Duke University (N.C.) lacrosse team's alleged rape incident-institutions of higher ed have been thrust into the spotlight.

More media attention has its pluses and minuses. It allows for more promotional opportunities, but also subjects IHEs to more public scrutiny and unwanted attention. "Colleges are basically accidents waiting to happen. While they are contained communities, they are still privy to everything that happens in the real world," says Fredrick Thompson, president of the PR division of Creative Partners, an educational consulting firm.

And, for better or worse, very "real" things do happen on campuses. "A campus crisis can be precipitated by almost any event, including threats of terrorism, the death of a student, accusations of faculty plagiarism, serious financial mismanagement, or a no-confidence vote in a president," says Randell J. Kennedy, president of Academy Communications, a higher ed consulting firm.

Good media relations, however, can help mitigate some of these disasters. It's time that IHEs learn from each other's mistakes and successes and take a more thoughtful, strategic, and proactive approach. Some forward-thinking IHEs have already begun to rethink their strategies. Many are supplementing their media plans with crisis communication plans; they're realizing the power of the web in delivering communications; they're building stronger ties with both the local and national media; and they're restructuring their media relations departments and hiring more seasoned public relations professionals.

It's all in an effort to fulfill the ultimate purpose of media relations: "to advance an institution's positive news and good works in good times and communicate effectively in bad times," Kennedy says.

After speaking with several media relations folks and industry experts, University Business came up with a list of do's and don'ts that will help your institution stay on top of the media relations game-before, during, and after the media attention hits. It will give you the know-how to recognize and capitalize on a promising public relations opportunity and the ability to diffuse negative press in a crisis.

There are times when your institution can't anticipate or avoid media attention. But you can prepare for your time in the spotlight.

Study other crises. "Very few people sit around the table and say, 'What are the storm clouds on the horizon?' " observes Christopher Simpson of SimpsonScarborough, a higher ed marketing company. But they should. "You can expect or predict crises-you just don't know the timing of them," he notes. So it's important to be aware of the crises that happen at other colleges and universities, evaluate how they were handled, and then take appropriate steps to ensure that they don't happen to your institution. Take campus fires, for example. Since early in 2000, the American Society of Safety Engineers indicates that IHEs have experienced 10 deadly on- or off-campus fires. Simpson says there's no excuse not to be prepared for a fire emergency.

Know your threats and weaknesses. Understand the environmental factors that could negatively affect your institution. Then create ways to respond to them. The goal is to be proactive, not reactive. Virginia Commonwealth University officials understood this concept 10 years ago when Richmond was declared the murder capital (per capita) of the United Sates. They reacted, hiring an outside consultant to conduct campus safety analyses, focus groups, and student polls about their perception of safety on campus. "It was more than just about being safe-the university wanted to be perceived as being safe," says a consultant who was hired to test the campus community's perception of safety on and off campus.

Assemble the right media relations people. "You want to hire experienced people who have dealt with a variety of sticky situations before," says Tim Caboni, a lecturer in public policy and higher education and assistant dean for external relations at Vanderbilt University's (Tenn.) Peabody College of Education and Human Development. "Spokespeople play a strategic role, not a technical one." Therefore, this person should be someone of a cabinet-level position who can sit comfortably at cabinet meetings and help inform decisions with a PR perspective.

Develop a crisis communications plan. A crisis communication plan can help your institution control the flow of information during a crisis while protecting its image and reputation. Here's how to do it:

Choose the crisis team. It should consist of media/marketing people, lawyers, IT/webmasters, and deans of students.

Know when to mobilize. The chair of media relations should be the one to mobilize the team. Have a plan (and backup plan) on when and where to meet. Designate a person to be available 24/7 during this time.

Define goals and segment audiences. The audiences you need to inform are faculty, staff, and students; prospective students; alumni/donors; elected officials; and business community/opinion leaders.

Define and understand potential crises: "If it's not going to kill the university or damage its business, it's not really a crisis," says Caboni. Don't create a stir over a situation that's really just a hurdle, he says. Higher ed crises tend to involve administrative scandals, campus violence, date rape, natural disasters, man-made disasters, computer hacks, and sports scandals.

Have a crisis website in place. It should be ready to activate instantly. The site should include links and information for contacting proper authorities. For example, when The Pennsylvania State University has an incident on campus, it launches its e-mail news service with 370,000 subscribers nationwide and in at least 50 foreign countries. The e-mail directs them to the university's website, where staff can instantly post information or statements from the university's president.

Test the crisis plan. Annual mock drills can get the job done.

Know and utilize your experts. Identify the faculty and staff members who would best make up your experts panel. "The media wants to interview experts who possess the six Ps," according to Keith Moore of Keith Moore Associates, a higher ed marketing and communications company that hosts an annual conference for PR professionals. "The media appreciates a direct person with simple, straightforward opinions on a topic of wide interest." These are individuals who have received peer recognition for their work (such as winning a Nobel or national prize), hold positions of note, and add perspectives. They have publishings to their credit (of chapters or, better yet, books), exude passion in their interviews, and exhibit winning personalities. Moore suggests cataloging experts into a database organized by backgrounds and topics of interest. Be sure to get their permission before placing them in interviews. You may also wish to include media training for experts.

Identify media targets for your outreach. Experts will appeal to more than just the local education writer at your hometown paper. You can contact the op-ed editor, features editor, science writer, lifestyle columnist, or sports reporter, as well as other specialists at local and national publications. Also, pitch stories about your school (those reflecting national trends, in particular) to the various higher ed media, such as University Business.

Develop relationships with reporters. The traditional PR model of faxing press releases and waiting for reporters to bite no longer works. Instead of focusing primarily on packaging the information, get to know members of the media. Through trial and error, you will find out which reporters you can trust to get the story right.

Know when to pitch. Find out which times of the year your pitch would be most topical. The annual Chase's Calendar of Events identifies birthdates and anniversaries of historic and important people and events (i.e., National Black History Month, Veteran's Day, Mental Health Week, etc.)

No matter how much you try to anticipate, predict, or prepare for a situation, you can't always be prepared for what comes your way.

Get bad news out fast. "Shorten the life of the news story by getting it out there completely and as soon as it hits," says Dick Jones of Dick Jones Communications, a media relations consulting company. The College of New Jersey did an exemplary job of handling the tragic death of one of its students, if the feedback Director of Communications Matt Golden has received on campus and from the local media is an indication. Several weeks after a freshman disappeared last spring, significant quantities of his blood were found in a dumpster beneath his dormitory. What did the college do? Hold a major press conference the next morning. "We were really focused on three of my core beliefs-to communicate frequently [and] accurately, and be completely transparent," says Golden. Even when there was little or no information available, he says he reached out to college constituents via mass e-mail twice a day. "We couldn't afford to even intimate that we were not sharing the information we had," he says. In addition, Golden kept a log of everything that took place at each police briefing. If a reporter couldn't attend the briefing, Golden says he would call to update him or her-even if that meant staying at work until 2 a.m.

Don't put the president/senior administrators out first. "Have your key spokespeople deal with a situation, unless the only one who can change it or speak to it is the president," says Caboni. After all, "if the president says something goofy, no one can correct that." Albany Law School (N.Y.) had a situation in which the dean aired his feelings about military recruiters on campus to a local TV station, without being prepped first. "The 5 p.m. news teased the piece with his sound bite, used out of context, and we caused a bit of a stir with some of our alumni," says David Singer, director of Communications and Marketing, who was new to the job at the time. "What I didn't tell him was that it's not important what you think personally; it's important that you think strategically," he says. Remind interview subjects they are speaking on behalf of the institution.

Tell the whole truth. If you don't, "you'll risk elements of the story coming to light later on," says Jones. "Then you set yourself up for a crisis, chapter two." The administration may urge you to withhold information since not every problem comes to light in the media. But Jones urges, "You have to be upfront with this information."

Yet ... be careful what you say. There's a tendency to say too much to reporters. "You are there to educate and explain. Have your statements in a very concise form. Give yourself a few seconds to say what you need to say, then move to the next question," says Sally Widman, president of The College and University Public Relations Association of Pennsylvania (CUPRAP). Reporters also may ask leading questions. Don't allow them to lead you, and correct inaccuracies. Also, never repeat their negative questions; they may use it against you. Finally, remember that nothing you say is ever off the record.

"A campus crisis can be precipitated by almost any event, including threats of terrorism, the death of a student, accusations of faculty plagiarism, serious financial mismanagement, or a no-confidence vote in a president." -Randell J. Kennedy, Academy Communications

Respond to rumors or false accusations. If a reporter presents a common falsehood or rumor, acknowledge it. "You can say, 'I've heard that rumor too, but I have no reason to believe it's true,'" says Golden of TCNJ. "Then reiterate what you know to be true." Sometimes, the perception of truth can be more damaging than the actual truth. "We live in this era of gotcha journalism, driven by 24-hour news coverage," notes Caboni, who points out that Duke came under fire for being unresponsive to the media during the height of its lacrosse team rape scandal in the spring of 2006. "I'm not clear what Duke's strategy is. It seems like they're just trying to lay low and hope that the incident goes away," says Caboni. Thompson of Creative Partners also notes that Duke's "sitting on the sidelines" behavior is a mistake, considering peoples' sensitivity to the racial issues that came into play. "By not implementing a more aggressive defense to an irresponsible and hole-ridden prosecutory response, they are reinforcing horrible racial perceptions," Thompson says.

Don't lose control of the story. A good way to judge whether you communicate effectively is how quickly you can knock the story off the front page of a paper. The Duke scandal, for example, made the front page of various papers for nine weeks straight, according to Simpson. "They lost complete control over the story. They put the whole story in the district attorney's lap. And they put all of their eggs in the 'are they guilty or innocent' basket," says the consultant. Simpson believes Duke could have regained control of the situation by addressing the gender and race question: "Did the university inadvertently or purposefully create an environment that was inhospitable to women and people of color?"

Be sensitive and sympathetic. "In a tragedy of any kind, you've got to first pay homage," says Moore. He points out that the University of Florida appropriately handled the situation when a serial killer murdered five of its students in their off-campus apartments in 1990. One of the first things that officials did, he explains, was express empathy for the families. "They didn't throw the policy book at them-instead, they said our hearts go out to you and we'll do everything we can as willing partners to help solve the crime," Moore recalls. They immediately went into offensive mode, shutting down the university for a week and sending letters to parents about campus safety.

Just because coverage has subsided after a crisis, an institution is not in the clear. Remain on guard, as the media will often bring up old news in months or years to come. You're on everyone's radar now-that includes media, alumni, and prospective students. They're watching, judging, and waiting to see what you'll do next.

Apologize. "Saying 'I am sorry' is incredibly powerful," says Caboni. When your president is at the center of the controversy, there's not much you can do but apologize. Within a week of making controversial comments about women and their aptitude for science, Lawrence Summers at Harvard wrote a well-received apology that was posted on the university's website. It didn't lessen the impact of his remarks, but it made people feel better that he was sorry. University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann took a similar tactic to diffuse the bad press about her posing with a student dressed in a suicide bomber costumer this past Halloween. In her online statement, she said, "The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it." Apology accepted.

After a student at The College of New Jersey disappeared and was assumed dead, college constituents were updated via e-mail twice a day, even when there was little or no information available. If a reporter missed a police briefing, Director of Communications Matt Golden called to offer a personal update.

Have trust in the public. "The public is very forgiving. They don't expect you to be perfect. They just want to see that there's a plan for fixing and handling the problem," says Jones. "They don't hold you responsible for the events-but they do hold you responsible for taking ownership of the problem."

Commemorate the tragedy. After the dormitory fire at Seton Hall University (N.J.) in 2000, the university developed a tradition to honor its anniversary by conducting a memorial mass and ringing three bells on a bell tower that was built to symbolize the three students who died. In addition, the university put in a memorial stone engraved with the words "Remember" on it. "We want to remember the tragedy as a sign of respect to those who died," explains university spokesperson Tom White. "If there's anything positive that's resulted from this tragedy, it's that fire safety at Seton Hall, and hopefully at other colleges, has improved," he says. "It awakened us to all the ways in which we could be better be prepared for a fire."

In times of turmoil, be mindful of your institutional reputation-but remember that caring for the campus community should come first. When a good opportunity arises, the key to good media relations is to be prepared. That way, you will have already laid the groundwork to capitalize on an opportunity. Just be sure not to buy into the "all press is good press" mantra. Jones says, "Publicity about something scandalous is never positive."

Alana Klein is a former editor at University Business.

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