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PR on the Web 101

Institutional Public Relations teams may be preventing their schools from getting deserved media coverage. Here's how the web can help.
University Business, Feb 2007

According to the Second National Survey of Higher Education Media, conducted in 2005 by the Education Writers Association, several roadblocks prevent reporters and editors from effectively covering higher ed. Respondents identified "lack of time" as the most important roadblock. This was just ahead of "getting information from colleges and universities."

When one knows the importance of media clips in developing and measuring an institution of higher ed's visibility and image, this finding seems paradoxical. Many IHEs invest a good share of their marketing budgets in traditional media advertising, but some shy away from free media exposure by ignoring or declining media requests. When asked to expand on this roadblock from EWA's study, journalists cite the simple refusal to provide information, lack of trained and responsive staff in higher ed Public Relations offices, and the bureaucracy of some institutions.

Too much information, too many media requests. Too little time, too few staff members. These are the problems plaguing institutional PR departments.

Time is a rare commodity for anybody sorting, processing, and repackaging information for a living.

Some schools have one person handling PR, notes Rob Westervelt, director of Brand Management at Biola University (Calif.). "In addition to media relations, these people also are involved in community relations, events, and crisis communication." With the accelerated news cycle, the multiplication of media outlets, and the advent of the information society powered by technology, time has become a rare commodity for anybody sorting, processing, and repackaging information for a living. If your school's PR team can't already keep up with traditional media requests, they're going to get in real trouble. Soon, a few influential bloggers and other would-be citizen journalists will be e-mailing to request access to your president, faculty experts, or student athletes.

No need for these staffers to quit yet. Handled properly, a school's website, e-mail, RSS feeds, and even blogs can help streamline media requests, keeping everybody informed along the way. Designing and improving the Media Relations website should be seen as a wise investment; it's a first stop for most journalists.

"It's rare for a journalist to not use the internet for research in any story. Often it's one of the first sources they turn to when conducting research for an article. We want to be sure the information we provide is useful and relevant to their needs," says Andrew Careaga, director of communications at the University of Missouri-Rolla.

And why wouldn't reporters and editors use the web? It's searchable, accessible at all times, and a way to get instant answers to basic questions. "I use the web constantly-searching news-related sites and colleges' sites, college papers, academic groups, etc. I use websites to get story ideas, to identify sources, to learn context," says Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder of the online publication Inside Higher Ed and previously an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

No higher education executive wants to learn from the media about a campus crisis.

Think Jaschik uses the web so much only because he publishes online? Not so.

Angie Weidinger, a TV reporter at KOLR-10 in Springfield (Mo.), also relies a lot on the web. "I generally check several universities' websites and blogs if they have them. UMR's research blog is very helpful because it often has stories on it that highlight some of the students' or professors' unusual research projects. It's a great place to go for story ideas." Media reporters not only visit institutional websites, but they also read the available blogs or RSS feeds.

Although he still checks his e-mail a lot, Tim Goral, editor of University Business, has made the leap to RSS. "I'm a big fan of RSS feeds. I subscribe to maybe a dozen feeds from higher ed organizations, and about the same amount from news sites of various colleges. It makes it easy to find the important message from a college or university."

According to the 11th Annual Survey of the Media commissioned by Euro RSCG Magnet and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, released in 2005, 51 percent of 1,202 journalists said they used blogs regularly. Also, 53 percent of journalists who read blogs reported doing so to research and fact-check, 36 percent to find sources, and 33 percent to uncover breaking news.

While they use the web daily to perform their work, journalists are rarely considered as target audiences for an institution's website. They wish they were.

Colleges and universities have invested a lot of energy to make their websites user-friendly and intuitive for prospective and current students, their parents, faculty, and staff members as well as alumni. But reporters often have a hard time finding press releases, contact information, and faculty experts. When there's a dedicated media relations web page, it can't be easily located from the home page in most cases. Higher ed website internal search engines, office directories, and site maps have become reporters and editors' best friends-but also, at the same time, their worst foes.

"The media relations section is especially difficult to find in alphabetized lists. I've seen it called newsroom, communications office, public affairs, public relations, media relations, external affairs, external relations, and probably others that I'm forgetting," complains one education editor. The solution to this lack of journalist-friendliness wouldn't require more than a line of HTML code and could take the form of a direct link placed in the footer of the home page or on the news page, often mentioned on the home page. If that isn't an option, the link should be displayed on the school's contact page and site map.

Another tip: Check that your media relations web page does pop up when searching for the following keywords: media, news, public relations, PR, media relations, press, and journalist.

Even if that web page is easy to find, don't stop there. According to reporters and editors, any college media relations web page should at least include contact information, current and archived press releases, and background information.

Most reporters won't try to contact you after 5 p.m. or on the weekend, but some have uncommon work schedules or a breaking news story assignment. Providing 24/7 phone and e-mail contact information can make reporters' jobs a bit easier and the PR teams' jobs more manageable.

After all, no higher ed executive wants to learn from the media about a crisis happening on campus. If they can reach the PR department, reporters will usually try to get story feedback before they run it. Beyond this good crisis communication principle, direct contact information for faculty experts will always be welcome by the media. When a story breaks, academic experts are often sought after to give some perspective to media coverage. In this case, an online expert directory could help get faculty members interviewed or featured.

"The most important features of [our] web section are the faculty experts' list and the current press releases and archives," confirms Jo Procter, associate director of Public Affairs at Williams College (Mass.). Searchable current and archived press releases will help reporters and editors get some necessary context, as will background information in the form of fact sheets and statistics about your institution.

If your school's media relations web page already offers all of these features, consider going a step further by using a blogging platform for press releases or by assuring your content management system creates RSS feeds on the fly and web addresses optimized for search engines. By helping journalists and bloggers find and subscribe to your news feeds, you will increase your chances to generate more traditional or new media coverage.

Last, don't forget to track how the school's media contacts do research. Adapt the web page to their needs-just as you would with any other target audience of the institution's website.

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 as well as a consultant on web projects for other institutions.

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