The role of campus media relations professionals has evolved significantly in the last dozen years and the threshold for success is higher than ever. Within the increasingly competitive world of higher education, strong media placements have become more valuable and therefore more highly coveted. And yet, while we’ve been quick to adopt new technologies and PR tactics for these placements, we have been slow to let go to some of the practices of the past.
The reality is that some tactics just don’t work anymore. They don’t get our institutions where we want them to be and they take time away from the approaches that will yield results. It’s hard to change our ways of doing things, especially in academia, but here are three things you should consider doing less of — much less. Giving up some of the past will make your work more efficient and your results more substantial.
Promoting Campus Events
Too many of us devote far too much time to promoting routine events like lectures, concerts, art exhibits, film screenings and the like. Most events do little to distinguish your campus from others. So why do so many of us feel compelled to go beyond that?
A typical lecture (unless it’s being given by a famous, controversial or cutting-edge figure or features content that is truly noteworthy) will be of most interest to your students and faculty and rarely gets the attention of local media. Even when it does, the resulting story is often about the speaker, not the institution. I’m not advocating for stopping all event promotion, but I do believe events should meet a certain threshold of newsworthiness to be heavily promoted by the communications office. If they don’t, those responsible for planning the event should take care of publicity. It’s not ideal, but it’s low risk, and it will free you up for more strategic outreach that will pay bigger dividends.
We do have a responsibility to share news of speakers and lectures on campus but that can be done simply by filling out online community event forms for local papers rather than writing lengthy and unnecessary press releases. The results often will be the same. Which leads to the next to-do item we need to trim.
Writing Press Releases
Media successes are not measured by the number of press releases issued.
In my experience, the biggest successes aren’t traceable to press releases at all. The best placements I have seen—the most influential outlets, the deeper stories, the articles most aligned with institutions’ strategic goals—resulted not from a press release, but from carefully crafted and highly targeted pitches and strong relationship building with journalists.
Oftentimes there is pressure (sometimes considerable) on campus media relations professionals to churn out news releases with little regard to whether they are meeting overall reputational and communications goals. I’ve been there, too, feeling like I had to write a press release on every bit of news someone brought to my attention.
But here’s the thing -- you don’t. And you shouldn’t.
Think of how many press releases you spend time researching, writing and getting approvals for that never materialize in news outlets (I’m looking at you campus events). I’d argue that time would be better spent building relationships and pursuing highly targeted and strategic pitches that better advance your institution, its leadership, faculty and students.
I know that this kind of approach represents a huge shift for a lot of communications offices in higher education, but I have experienced firsthand how it results in more meaningful placements that can truly advance image and reputation. I’m not saying you should never write another press release, because you should –particularly for major institutional news and announcements, very high-profile events and major achievements by members of your campus community. But less can be more when it comes to press releases. By drawing a line in the sand on requests that will do little to improve the public’s perception of your institution, you will have more time to devote to the tasks that will.
And I already know the pushback I’ll hear in the comments section of this post: Our local paper uses our press releases and depends on us for content. If that really is the case, then you need to break this cycle and find new ways to partner. It makes more sense to pitch the bigger story and shape a feature rather than being content with a snippet.
Pitching Stories Without a News Hook
There are lots of interesting stories on our campuses -- stories that, theoretically, should be appealing to reporters. But, in the vast majority of cases, pitching a cool story just because it’s cool or because we find it interesting isn’t nearly enough to place it on the front page of a paper or a website.
There needs to be something more -- a way to connect the story to the bigger “so what,” to the important issues of the day, particularly when you are seeking a national placement. The good news is, that with a little research there’s almost always a news hook out there to connect to.
If you aren’t able to demonstrate why your institution’s news should matter to those beyond your campus community, consider holding the pitch until a stronger news hook materializes. If you have a truly good story, there will be a time for it. Those who know me well know that I’ve held on to stories for years before the timing was right for a particular pitch. In the end, waiting for that perfect moment made the placements that much stronger and sweeter.
So, this summer, as you’re planning for next year, consider a few small tactical changes that could result in major media wins.