Working Smartly for Your Alma Mater
Keeping perspective is critical to effective media and marketing efforts.
For many of us, working at our alma mater is a professional dream come true. While I personally have not yet had the opportunity to do so in a formal capacity, my career bucket list includes helping to share the stories of what makes my alma mater, Stonehill College, so amazing. And I’ve pursued a career that allows me to tell the stories of our industry, including those that encourage students to have the incredible experience I was lucky enough to have—and I know that many alumni working for their alma maters feel the same way.
The passion that alumni feel for their institutions is a tremendous asset for employers—they embody a level of loyalty that most corporations can only dream of achieving. But passion must be tempered with the ability to take a step back and assess situations and opportunities appropriately. This means removing emotion and pride, and truly understanding how your institution compares regionally and nationally. And this is sometimes where even the most well intended people get tripped up.
To make the biggest impact for your institution, you need to understand where your alma mater fits in the broader higher education landscape—and even more importantly, you need to be realistic about it. Just because you had the perfect experience as a student doesn’t necessarily mean your college does things that much better or differently than others. Just because a respected faculty member says her program is cutting-edge doesn’t necessarily make it so. As alumni of institutions that shaped our lives so significantly, we may take these kinds of “truths” for granted when they’re told to us. After all, they may “feel” right to us. But for those outside of our campus communities, with varied and competing experiences, our “points of pride” may not measure up—and can have consequences for those of us seeking media coverage.
Your alma mater may, in fact, do things better, be the first or the most innovative. It may offer the best or most forward-thinking experiential learning programs in the country, the highest job placement rates for graduates, philanthropic gifts with unprecedented impact, or uniquely partner with alumni inside and outside of the classroom. Your favorite faculty member may be the world’s pre-eminent astrophysics scholar. But don’t just trust that this is the case. Dig deeper, do your research and prove them right.
Some alumni employees so unintentionally drink the Kool-Aid that they have lost the ability to be objective. And when objectivity is lost, pitches lose their punch and practitioners can lose their credibility. At the point when you start to pitch journalists “new, one-of-a-kind programs” that other campuses introduced (and that media covered) years ago, you need to take a step back and reevaluate the stories you’re pushing.
It’s important to note that lapses in objectivity can happen to all of us, whether we are alums of the institutions we work for or not. We are lucky, in higher education, to work for some amazingly inspiring places. It’s easy—and oftentimes warranted—to get caught up in greatness and blur perspective of the world outside our campus gates. But it is also critically important that we step back, as professionals, and ask some tough questions when faculty or administrators want us to pitch stories about that excellence. Is yours really the only institution with a program like this? Is it really the first to offer this major? The key is to be just skeptical enough to determine what’s truly newsworthy and still stay clear of the appearance of being negative or an obstructionist. Questioning others on campus is a good start, but other items on your to-do list for pitching any story should include:
- Googling. I never pitch a story without first Googling the topic and angle. It’s a quick and simple insurance policy. When I approach a reporter with a story idea, I am informed about how the topic has been covered elsewhere and can articulate why my story still needs to be told. Oftentimes something that a faculty member or administrator told me was unique to their institution actually wasn’t. They weren’t lying or trying to conceal anything and it also didn’t mean we couldn’t place the story, but it did impact our strategy. (In most cases, they either weren’t able to confirm the uniqueness or just didn’t think to do so.) Going into the pitching process with eyes wide open is critical.
- Consulting colleagues. If you have an idea you think is particularly distinctive, ask around. Utilize listservs, email or call national associations. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself with a trend story and additional resources to pitch.
- Reading. Lots and lots of reading. If you really want to know what’s happening in every corner of higher education, reading national, regional and local coverage is a must. There’s not enough time in a day to read everything, but signing up for daily newsletters (emails from the higher ed trade publications, including Inside Higher Ed; Daily Lumina News; Academic Impressions' Daily Pulse and NAICU’s Daily News, are a few of my favorites) and following a wide range of higher ed reporters on social media should give you a good sense of the landscape. I’m stymied when I talk to colleagues and they say they never get around to reading the higher ed news of the day. Skipping this vital step is akin to doing your job with a blinders on.
Loving your alma mater and giving back professionally is an extraordinary privilege. This academic year, challenge your campus to think beyond their usual “stories to be told” to find what will really make an impression on a reporter, a prospective student or a donor.
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