Working in higher education is, at the moment, no easy task. With school budgets shrinking, the staffs at colleges and universities reflect in many ways the economy as a whole: more is being asked of fewer workers. Media coverage of campus news mirrors this change. Fewer journalists in the mainstream media are covering campus happenings, and those that do tend to focus more on sensational events such as crimes and controversies and less on what schools themselves want to publicize. This poses a unique challenge for people working in any school’s public relations offices.
Josh Keller, West Coast correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the leading news source covering the world of higher education, recently spoke with Higher Ed Live about some effective strategies to help public relations staff meet that challenge.
Keller first breaks down the elements of what turns a press release into a good news story. “If you read newspapers, if you pay attention to other outlets, you’ll see what they cover and what they don’t cover.” If a story is covering a trend of developments, he says, hard data points or other information are essential to making sure that the dynamic being described is actually true. New or novel developments catch the news consumer’s eye—if they’re tied to successful results—and more so if the people involved in a story are somehow interesting. A good story must have “an immediacy, and something people will talk about once they hear it.”
He stresses the importance of being strategic in developing good relationships with reporters and understanding what they are looking for in a story. Making the effort to share information relevant to a reporter that isn’t immediately self-promoting helps build a relationship of trust with that person. “Exchange of information between a journalist and a source of information is a two-way street,” Keller points out. It’s not easy, given the fact that reporters are very busy and rapid turnover is commonplace, he admits, but that relationship is well worth the effort—even for PR professionals in small schools, who might only have newsworthy stories once in a while.
The best avenue to connect with a journalist depends on the individual reporter—one might respond best to Tweets or email, and another to comments on his or her articles. Mass broadcasting of news stories is generally not as effective at gaining attention, though press releases can work when information is truly newsworthy. What’s more important is whether the news item is relevant to what the journalist is personally out to cover. If you’re not sure whether a piece is relevant or not, Keller advises simply emailing the reporter with the question—and if he or she isn’t interested, perhaps they could suggest who might want the story.
One strategy we endorse is posting less important news releases on a platform such as Business Newswire, then pitching more important or relevant stories to a select number of journalists with whom you have a closer relationship. This helps to keep those media contacts tuned to what is most important to your school without inundating them with less important information.
Timing is also important in the PR worker/journalist relationship. Returning reporters’ calls promptly, letting them know when their questions will be answered, and being very specific on when news embargoes can be lifted on stories all make the job of reporting easier. As to whether offering a reporter an exclusive opportunity to tell a story can be beneficial to your publicity, Keller is clear: “I love exclusives,” he says, and as long as a story is relevant, “it will make me more likely at least to pay attention to it.”
Keller thinks that online newsrooms, a new development in higher education that we covered in a recent conversation with Georgy Cohen of Tufts University, are a necessary tool for any school that really wants its news publicized. Presenting such information as a directory of PR staff and experts in various fields, a feed of recent press releases and fact archives makes the journalist’s research task considerably easier. News organizations have also become more open to embedding multimedia features such as YouTube videos offered by a college or university into their own news coverage.
In pitching a news item to the press, Keller advises that PR people approach journalists in the same way reporters write their own copy—that is, with an understanding of how to communicate a story and its importance. He tends to be first attracted to an email with a lead to a story; then a list of people he might speak with about it; next, some sort of reference to why the story matters beyond the context of just that institution; and finally, a follow-up phone call during business hours to make sure he’s aware of the story and its relevance.
All these details ultimately add up to developing and keeping good working relationships with the right journalists. As school budgets tighten in higher education, attention to such details will increasingly pay off.