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More Ways to Support Your Institution's Experts

University Business, Sep 2009

It's one thing to get the press to call on your institution's experts. It's another to make sure those experts truly feel comfortable in a media interview. How are institutions are getting the job done?

Margaret Spillett, director of communications at Syracuse University (N.Y.) School of Information Studies, developed an online tool kit for faculty and staff at Syracuse's iSchool that helps to maintain a consistent brand and build a comfort level in them with interacting with the media. The kit includes PowerPoint, poster, letterhead, and other templates; logos; photos; media training tips; an op-ed writing cheat sheet; and key talking points and facts about the school. "We used open source software to build it, so basically it only cost some time of IT staff members to get up and running," says Spillett. And at the Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.), a newsletter created by Michael Saffran, associate director/manager of new media, educates faculty about media relations and ways they can better share knowledge and expertise.

Offering one-on-one guidance, when needed, is also a good idea. In addition to holding faculty media training seminars several times a year, Brandi Palmer, manager of media relations at the Stetson University (Fla.) College of Law, says there is individualized training if faculty members need one-on-one help in becoming more comfortable with journalists. Cushman/Amberg Communications Vice President and General Manager Rob Amberg suggests having a 15- to 30-minute briefing session just prior to an interview.

Coordinating an effort with the entire media relations team is another way to support faculty in getting press attention. Before an American University (D.C.) professor and several students embarked on a yearlong cross-country road trip to research Muslims and attitudes toward them, an integrated team from the communications and marketing office created a plan for helping them tell their story while on the road. Steps included creating a blog, teaching students how to shoot and edit video for posting to the blog, and bringing handouts about the trip, according to Acting Director of Media Relations Maralee Csellar. A media staff member contacted reporters in each city and pointed them to the blog, which was updated daily. "The archival aspect of the blog enabled us to be able to talk about the journey without having to fill reporters' inboxes with lengthy pitches," says Csellar, "and video helped bring the story to life for the reporters."

Four months into the journey, the road trip became a feature on CNN's website. During the trip, the professor talked to local TV news stations and conducted radio interviews. His students started to write op-eds about the trip, with one becoming a regular contributor to The Huffington Post.

Finally, to help encourage those who may be camera shy, some institutions offer incentives for working with media relations staff. Make working on positive publicity and media campaigns a part of tenure assessments for professors, suggests University of Central Florida's Grant J. Heston, assistant vice president for News and Information. Dick Jones, principal of Dick Jones Communications, finds usually there is nothing in the promotion and tenure policy that credits faculty who help the college with its media relations work. "I suggest that media relations staffers ask the president or dean to write a short note to faculty when they help with projects that result in significant positive visibility for the institution," he says. "The professors can put these endorsements in their portfolio for the 'service' portion of their tenure and promotion reviews."

Randell J. Kennedy, president of Academy Communications, suggests reminding faculty experts to always mention the name of their institution at the beginning and end of a discussion with broadcast news outlets to avoid being identified as only a professor or expert.