Living Publicly

A new mindset and a new skill set are necessary to survive today's high-stakes and ever-watchful media climate

A 24/7 news cycle, the Internet, an accountability revolution, and a smaller news hole are just a few of the factors changing campus media relations programs.

By Andrea Jarrell

A real evolution is taking place in college and university media relations offices as astute institutions move away from the old news-bureau model toward an integrated approach. This new approach puts media relations at the center of an arsenal of tools to communicate an institution's messages, an arsenal that includes other functions such as public affairs, admissions, alumni relations, development, and government relations.

Driving this evolution are predictions of an "accountability revolution," reporters who see higher education issues through a K-12 reform lens, a smaller news hole, the speed and immediacy of a 24/7 news cycle, and a fragmented audience that gathers its news from nontraditional sources.

"Amid tremendous calls for accountability, media relations is one of the major conduits institutions have for communicating," says Roland H. King, vice president for public affairs at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. "In today's climate, media relations is a whole lot more than simply trying to get a story into a national daily."

Many media relations veterans see this new climate as indicative of incremental changes that have been occurring for nearly 20 years. In response, these veterans and newcomers alike are transforming their institutions' media relations programs, rethinking staff roles and developing innovative strategies that rely less on the "mediated message" and more on direct contact with audiences.

Scanning the environment

In the January/February 2003 issue of American Journalism Review, Senior Editor Carl Sessions Stepp writes, "Once treated with reverence, universities and colleges are now receiving more skeptical and probing coverage." But the word "now" may be a frying-pan-to-fire distinction. As long ago as the mid-1980s, some policy makers made education a mainstay of media coverage with attacks on academic quality and fiscal integrity and calls to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education. Around the same time, public and private institutions came under fire as tuition increased dramatically and cost controversies swirled. Against this backdrop, U.S. News & World Report launched its rankings of colleges and universities, characterizing a new "consumer" era in higher education intensified by second-generation baby-boomer demographics. 

"We talk about the good old days," says John F. Burness, Duke University's senior vice president for government relations and public affairs, "but I'm not sure they really existed. The stakes have always been high." Scott Jaschik, former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, agrees. "In terms of scrutiny, this trend has been going on for a while," he says. "You could look back to the 1990s and see plenty of stories asking tough questions [about higher education]." 

What is different today is a weak economy—which intensifies scrutiny of value, access, rising tuition costs—and a seasoned K-12 education reform movement. Lisa Walker, executive director of the Washington, DC-based Education Writers Association, says that over time, reporters who cover both K-12 and higher education have developed a level of sophistication about accountability because of their K-12 coverage—a sophistication they transfer to their higher education reporting.

Indeed, questions of higher education accountability first appeared in connection with K-12 teacher preparation and certification. Public criticism of schools of education opened the door to all of higher education. As University of Texas Chancellor Mark Yudof states in a July 11 Chronicle of Higher Education article, "This wave has already come over the public schools, and now it's coming over higher education. Either you help to shape this accountability revolution so it's done in an intelligent way, or you're going to get run over."

Ratcheted-up scrutiny comes at a time when the context for every story is budget cuts, Jaschik says. In addition, a tighter news hole due to terrorism and war coverage means fewer higher education stories overall. "That puts a higher premium on the stories that do run," he says. "It also means they tend to be more significant stories, which have greater potential to make trouble." 

But is this the news the public wants and needs? Despite almost two decades of gloves-off scrutiny and new accountability debates, the Chronicle's recent national poll of public opinion on higher education found that 91 percent of respondents "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that "colleges are one of the most valuable American resources." The public's keenest interest in higher education is not to criticize but to gain access. What the public wants more of right now, Jaschik says, "are stories that relate very directly to a college's core mission. [People] want to make sure their kids are going to get in and they want to know how they're going to pay for it. They want to know how colleges are educating students despite budget cuts and how they are finding students jobs after they graduate."

Un-mediating the message

Susan Bloch-Nevitte, director of public affairs and advancement communications at the University of Toronto, sees fragmentation of the news audience as the greatest challenge in today's new media landscape. "News sources as varied as the Internet, cable, and cell phone text-messaging services divide the audience, making a critical mass far more difficult to reach," she says. The university's solution is to depend less on the "mediated message" and more on internal audiences. "Increasingly we work from the inside out," Bloch-Nevitte says, "using the same IT resources once reserved for the media to reach communities closest to the university. We figure that if they understand what we're doing and why, we have a better chance of reaching a greater external audience as well." 

Duke's Burness agrees. "Two years ago, we moved from a traditionally defined news service to an office of news and communication that drives the university's Web agenda." No longer "held hostage"—writing strictly for and edited by the media—the staff now creates eDuke, an online service that has 9,000 subscribers, including alumni leaders, trustees, visitors, friends of the university, and the public. Subscribers receive two regular communications a day, among them roundups tracking Duke's appearance in national and international news, and news releases once sent only to the media. They also can subscribe to a monthly update segmented by areas of interest.

NAICU's King, who has judged CASE's Circle of Excellence awards in media relations for the last few years, says truly effective media relations programs approach Web sites "not as passive storehouses of information but as an active way to pursue relationships with the media and directly with the public." 

King could be describing the University of Alabama at Birmingham's use of the Web to communicate directly with a general audience about initiatives related to the institution's core values and to successfully collaborate with the media in doing so. "Science has always been central to UAB's mission," says Gary Mans, public relations director. "We want to make science come alive for the general public and give people a better understanding of what a university does and how it affects their lives." UAB staff members work with all levels of media, asking what viewers and readers want. The media relations team then strives to deliver that information in ways the public "is not used to receiving it," such as two affiliated Web sites that staffers created: WOW! and Tommy Test Tubes. WOW! takes visitors to live UAB research sites in places such as Antarctica and India. Tommy Test Tubes, hosted on the Birmingham News Web site, is a series of science experiments created by a UAB professor that kids ages 12 and under can do at home. 

"About every other year we look at what we're doing and what other institutions are doing and think about how we might adapt it to our own goals," Mans says. Next on the horizon: a site from the university's school of education—hosted on the local FOX TV affiliate station's Web site—devoted to practical ways parents can help their children learn and, in the process, help parents understand the value of education.

Rapid response 

Although the Web allows campuses to tell more of their own stories directly to constituents, it also enables them to respond rapidly to breaking news in a 24/7 news cycle. Burness says his team meets every morning to discuss the important news issues of the past 24 hours. Before the morning is over, staff members send reporters all over the country related tips and access to Duke experts. 

Burness proceeds with caution, however. He appreciates the Web's versatility and powerful reach, but is mindful of its ability to amplify negative press. He tells the story of a Duke medical professor who, shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, received e-mails from two Pakistani students hoping to work in his laboratory. The professor vehemently rejected their request. Quickly realizing the imprudence of his action, he sent an apology the next morning and offered the students a place in his lab, but by then his original missive had been e-mailed all over the world, sparking negative media—the reverberations of which the university is still feeling.

"The Web gives you the ability to tell your side of the story, to correct and clarify, but Jayson Blair notwithstanding, once something has appeared in the New York Times, whether it's accurate or inaccurate, it's gospel," Burness says.

U of T's Bloch-Nevitte says that the new pace of the media and the nearly unlimited reach of the Web have had an additional positive outcome on her campus. "We have, in effect, trained members of the university community to understand the 24/7 nature of information and have seen some improvement in turnaround on key stories," she says.

Peter Smith, retired director of public affairs at the Association of American Universities, says rapid response on most campuses requires more than some improvement; it requires a whole new mindset.

"In an age with increasing emphasis on 'gotcha journalism,'" Smith says, "the best campus practitioners understand the necessity of proactive rapid response, but there are whole classes of institutions that lag behind in terms of thinking strategically." Smith says the single best thing any campus media liaison can do is to take a cue from the day-to-day survival routines of the political arena. Dan Schnur, a leading political and media strategist and former national communications director for Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, agrees. "As academia loses special status in the eyes of the press corps," he says, "colleges and universities, like businesses, are becoming much more receptive to proactive media relations, understanding the importance of speed and accuracy and the fact that a defensive posture doesn't help."

This kind of participatory media relations is not for the faint of heart, and it's not for "yes-people," King says. When advising a chief executive on an issue, media relations practitioners need to provide sound insights based on facts, avoid overreacting, and discuss and debate the issue without personalizing their views. The payoff is that, over time, communications pros who master these approaches move from being executors of orders to counselors on issues. "That's what the president and other chief officers need and deserve from their media relations person," King says. "And it's the role they need to fill for their own professional growth."

A different pitch 

In today's climate, campus media pros also should be rethinking the kinds of stories they pitch and the way they pitch them. Sarah Maxwell, director of media relations for Carleton College, emphasizes that selectivity is more important than ever. "Today the major newspaper in our area has cut back to a few education reporters covering the entire state—more than 25 colleges and universities and all of K-12—so we have to work a lot harder. The stories need to be better and reporters need a good reason to look at a pitch."

Like the growth in probing coverage of higher education, reporters' disdain for media relations professionals who are not selective may be on the rise as well. "I think a pitch-everything-and-see-what-sticks attitude persists," Jaschik says. "I received a lot of pitches—even some great ones—that were totally wrong for my publication. Reporters get sick of those requests."

During CASE's Annual Conference for Media Relations Professionals in March, New York Times education reporter Greg Winter advised media relations practitioners to think of their institutions as a window into an interesting world. "Rather than trying to place a story about your institution, think of your institution as part of a trend. Know who else is doing what your campus is doing. Know how your campus fits into the big picture."

Walker agrees. "In this climate, where fiscal and security issues are huge, there is less of a role for feature stories and more of a need to work with reporters to help them understand the big issues," she says. "You need to become a mirror-image news service, reporting on your own institution."

Today's selectivity is not only about what the media want and need, but also about institutions being more strategic in choosing the stories they want to tell. Swarthmore College includes media relations in its strategic communications plan. "Much like political campaigns, we have certain themes or messages that we emphasize in a given time period," says Tom Krattenmaker, director of news and information. "Right now our theme is internationalism." He says reality sometimes dictates issues he needs to address, and the college attempts to express its theme—and be truly integrated—not just in its media interactions, but in its alumni magazine, Web site, correspondence with alumni and other constituents, and events.

Jaschik applauds those institutions that stick to their core messages. "Too often media relations professionals focus on hot issues, like 'How our campus is fighting al Qaeda'," rather than those that are central to their mission. "Whether you get coverage, when questions about preserving budgets come along I don't think trendy stories are going to help you." He notes that it's rare for a reporter to get an invitation to sit in on a class, but good media relations officers should know 10 classrooms they could take a reporter to on any given day, classes where the excitement of learning is palpable. "Then when controversies come up about faculty workload or tenure, the reporter has a mental picture of Professor X who does amazing things in the classroom, rather than that tenure sounds pretty cushy."

As the method for pitching stories has become more immediate and direct, Maxwell says, it's even more important to be selective. When she was hired four years ago, she had just graduated from college and was accustomed to using e-mail and the Internet as primary communications tools. In those four years, her office's approach has changed "from 'broadcasting' news releases to large paper mailing lists to individual targeted e-mail pitches." 

While the "what" and the "how" of a good pitch have changed, in some cases so has the "who." Maxwell says she now finds herself working with reporters on beats other than education. She recently pitched a story to a charities and philanthropy reporter, which the Associated Press picked up. And a medical reporter formerly on the higher education beat covered Carleton's recent brush with the SARS crisis.

No guts, no glory

Media coverage of campuses can't and won't always be rosy, but it's important for media relations officers to realize that reporters aren't necessarily working against them or their institutions. As the New York Times' Winter said, "It's not about tearing an institution apart. Tension is a necessary ingredient in any story." Besides, Jaschik says, "a good press person doesn't think controversy is a bad thing."

Duke's Burness adds, "Controversy is what good universities are about. We have 1,600 faculty on our campus and at least 1,800 opinions. You have to respect that. It doesn't mean I'm going to advertise the negatives, but we have to be comfortable with their existence. It's a function of credibility." 

Media relations officers have to be willing to take some risks, Maxwell says. "It's very easy to get caught up in what your vice president is going to say and try to manage a story so it says only good things," she says. But "if you worry about what everyone is going to say, you'll be too scared to pitch anything."

Although it might seem counterintuitive in an era of heightened scrutiny, reporters and successful campus media professionals agree that protecting an institution by not providing information to the media is exactly the wrong tack to take. Giving reporters access to Carleton College's new president "without an agenda" is one of the ways Maxwell has developed collegial relationships with them. She says fostering those relationships has been better preparation for crisis situations than anything else she could do. She should know: Within a year she had to deal with three major crises affecting the campus, including the death of U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone (a former professor), suspected SARS cases, and a student death. Each issue generated intense scrutiny, but the college emerged not only unscathed, but with positive coverage of its handling of the incidents.

"When reporters are given a crisis story, they know immediately who to call on campus, and they know I'll be as honest as I can. It pays off for me, too, because I know who I can trust with sensitive information, and who I need to keep an eye on," she says.

Good relationships with the media are built on respect and regular contact, says U of T's Bloch-Nevitte. "Happily, that's one area that hasn't changed over the years. I hope it never does."

This article is from the September 2003 CASE CURRENTS. Read the related sidebar,  "Missed by a Mile."