Turning a College President Into a Thought Leader

Tips for securing opinion pieces for your president and faculty

August 7, 2018

Positioning your president as a thought leader is a goal of every college communicator and securing bylined op-ed pieces is one strategy that can help you achieve just that.

At the recent College Media Conference, Kevin Burke, vice president for communications at Franklin & Marshall College, outlined the best ways to secure national media placements for your president and faculty. Burke, who helped place 40 op-eds for his president during the last three years, shared his top seven tips for scoring ink, and, in collaboration with him, I’ve summarized the key takeaways from his presentation. 

  1. Have a strong opinion. An eager, willing president who is passionate about a particular issue and has original thoughts about how to address it is key. In Burke and Franklin & Marshall’s case, the issue was access and opportunity for underserved students and his president was a key player in the American Talent Initiative. Is your president a bit reticent? Burke pointed out your president can overcome that initial queasiness if you make a convincing case that penning opinion pieces on important issues is an impactful way to project the public voice for the college and position the president as a thought leader. Show examples of other college presidents who have done this well and talk to your presidents about what excites and inspires them. Every college president cares deeply and feels strongly about an issue or two that affects higher education, students and parents. 
  2. Develop a writers round table. This is a small group of writers from the communications team and the president’s office who get the ball rolling. They identify topics in the news and other viable issues for the presidents to address and meet with them to present the topics. The presidents then decide what they believe is worthy of development. The writers create a first draft, the presidents edit and then give the writers a second draft to edit. It’s important that they have a significant level of participation in this collaborative process so they can add their personal voice and the final piece sounds like something they would say, in language they would use.
  3. Focus on Issues and Ideas first. Opinion page editors are interested in issues and ideas, not promoting your college. What burning issues can your presidents opine on and what original ideas do they have for solving them? If the published op-eds don’t mention your colleges, it is fine, as long as the byline mentions their positions as president. You can consider that a success as it sets them up as a thought leader and elevates the issues and ideas on which they lead.
  4. Take a controversial stand. While it’s important to be judicious about selecting topics that are appropriate for your presidents to address, encourage them not to be hesitant about taking a position or alienating people. If it’s an issue that your students and community care about and your presidents have a message, they should go for it and be bold. People want presidents to lead and they’re interested in what they have to say. 
  5. Loop in faculty. Many professors have expertise in areas of interest to the public and their bylines in major media outlets also help elevate the college brand. Burke and a colleague held a symposium for faculty showing them how to write jargon-free op-eds geared for the general public and how to come up with engaging subject lines. He shared some examples of what’s possible and offered them his services to consult on topics, edit and shape their pieces to prepare for publication in a newspaper or online media outlet.
  6. Tune in to potentially newsworthy situations. Always be clued in to what’s at the top of the news cycle and what people are buzzing about. Be attuned to the calendar and what’s going on around you. This constant engagement can generate ideas for opinion pieces on weighty issues as well as fun, offbeat topics. On one occasion, for example, Burke noticed birds heralding spring on his campus and wondered if they were more adept at this than the groundhogs. He kicked around some ideas with a biology professor who had done research in this area and after much deliberation, naysaying and back and forth, a piece was secured in Scientific Americantimed to coincide with Groundhog Day. 
  7. Consider a co-author. Sometimes it makes sense to partner with the president of another college. The workload can then be shared among both communications teams and a piece bylined by two college presidents catches the attention of opinion editors. When two presidents appear together on the op-ed page, it underscores the importance of the issue they are addressing and editors know that readers will tune in.

Once the op-ed is published, be sure to maximize the hit with every one of your target audiences. Ask for reprint permission and disseminate the articles to your board and advisory committees and use it as a handout for your president’s speaking engagements. Promote the opinion pieces on your website and social channels to expand the reach to students, alumni, parents and prospective students. Encourage key college influencers to share as well as students with large followings on social media.

While the tips outlined above will undoubtedly be time-consuming and painstaking, the rewards will be worth the effort. Colleges whose presidents lead on key issues and articulate their position in influential outlets are those that many will want to consider. The ripple effect of your media placements is an elevation of your brand stature, an increase in alumni and donor support and a boost in enrollment. 

Ellie Schlam is executive director of communications & marketing at Touro College and University System. Follow her on Twitter at @schlamellie. 


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