College media relations can wield greater influence in digital age

Higher ed tips for telling your school's story on a variety of messaging platforms
By: | Issue: March, 2017
February 27, 2017

Director of media relations used to be a title with a fairly straightforward and obvious list of responsibilities: Pitch items of interest to newspapers and broadcast outlets; respond to requests for information from those same newspapers and broadcast outlets; manage the occasional news conference; serve as your institution’s spokesperson.

Then the internet happened.

Websites that delivered round-the-clock news and blogs were just the beginning. The dizzying blur of social media soon followed, with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Linked-In and Snapchat offering a complex, diverse array of platforms for content production, delivery and sharing. (Let’s not even talk about Yik Yak.)

In other words, media relations is a more comprehensive and complicated endeavor than it was just two decades ago. So how to do it right in an age of media fragmentation, saturation and decentralization?

Just say “S.”

Strategize. If you don’t have a copy of your school’s strategic plan, get one and read it. Now. By learning the strategic priorities set forth by your senior leadership, you’ll know what content to heat up, and what content to slide to the back burner.

Our schools are more robust institutions than they used to be, with more content to mine than staff to cover it. There simply is no way to highlight it all. So don’t try. Instead, focus on the storylines that support and advance your strategic goals.

Segment. Different audiences consume content in different ways. So, different platforms—whether traditional, new or emerging—are appropriate for different kinds of outreach.

Instagram can put worth-a-thousand-words images to a great story. Twitter is invaluable for crisis communications. And a mention in The New York Times still means something, because the best legacy media companies are remaining relevant by adapting to the evolving media landscape.

Scan. “Proactive media relations” used to mean teeing up faculty members in advance to offer expert commentary on pending events. That remains true, but now it encompasses much more than prepping a cogent tip sheet. It also means keeping your eyes open for changes in the media itself.

As new platforms emerge and existing platforms evolve, look for opportunities to tell your institution’s stories in new ways. To cite just one example, Facebook Live allows you to stream video of campus events with nothing more complicated than a phone and a Wi-Fi connection.

Sync. “And that’s the way it is.” Walter Cronkite’s iconic signoff from each night’s CBS Evening News embodied the media’s once ubiquitous and now long-gone voice-of-authority reporting.

Its replacement is Twitter’s “What happening?”—an invitation to share anything and everything, to converse directly with newsmakers and news reporters, and to inspire and infuriate and inform. We used to consume media; now we are the media.

Take advantage of the declining influence of gatekeepers: Engage with your stakeholders. Have the tough conversations. Correct errors and misperceptions in real time.

Media relations was never for the faint of heart. There’s a reason its practitioners are called a word that also means “antiaircraft fire.” But in that era a flak could obscure bad news with a late-afternoon Friday press release.

Twenty-four-hour cable news, an online atmosphere that encourages hot takes and epic burns, and an interconnectedness that can shine the most relentless of spotlights on your campus at the touch of a finger are just a few of the things complicating the lives of today’s media relations specialists.

Call me an optimist, but I see our discipline’s paradigm shift as offering unprecedented opportunity to tell our institution’s best, most important stories to those we’re trying our hardest to reach. The phrase “media relations” used to emphasize the first word; now it’s all about the second, which gives us influence we never had.

It’s up to us to use it.

Tom Durso is associate vice president for college relations and marketing at Albright College.