Media Relations Boot Camp: With Their Institutions under the Media Microscope, College and University Leaders Must Carefully Consider Every PR Move They Make

By Klein, Alana | University Business, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Media Relations Boot Camp: With Their Institutions under the Media Microscope, College and University Leaders Must Carefully Consider Every PR Move They Make


Klein, Alana, University Business


In a world of growing consumer distrust, new technology, and gotcha journalism, media relations pros in higher ed face an increasing number of challenges. Not only are they expected to defend, protect, and promote their institutions in good times and in bad, but they must do it with the utmost compassion, elegance, and honesty. It's a tough job that's multifaceted, multdimensional, and complicated.

And, given the medias growing interest in exposing college and university PR gaffes--seen through coverage of the University of Colorado at Boulder's football recruitment and professor Ward Churchill scandals, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers' controversial comments about women and science, and the Duke University (N.C.) lacrosse team's alleged rape incident--institutions of higher ed have been thrust into the spotlight.

More media attention has its pluses and minuses. It allows for more promotional opportunities, but also subjects IHEs to more public scrutiny and unwanted attention. "Colleges are basically accidents waiting to happen. While they are contained communities, they are still privy to everything that happens in the real world," says Fredrick Thompson, president of the PR division of Creative Partners, an educational consulting firm.

And, for better or worse, very "real" things do happen on campuses. "A campus crisis can be precipitated by almost any event, including threats of terrorism, the death of a student, accusations of faculty plagiarism, serious financial mismanagement, or a no-confidence vote in a president," says Randall J. Kennedy, president of Academy Communications, a higher ed consulting firm.

Good media relations, however, can help mitigate some of these disasters. It's time that IHEs learn from each other's mistakes and successes and take a more thoughtful, strategic, and proactive approach. Some forward-thinking IHEs have already begun to rethink their strategies. Many are supplementing their media plans with crisis communication plans; they're realizing the power of the web in delivering communications; they're building stronger ties with both the local and national media; and they're restructuring their media relations departments and hiring more seasoned public relations professionals.

It's all in an effort to fulfill the ultimate purpose of media relations: "to advance an institution's positive news and good works in good times and communicate effectively in bad times," Kennedy says.

After speaking with several media relations folks and industry experts, University Business came up with a list of do's and don'ts that will help your institution stay on top of the media relations game--before, during, and after the media attention hits. It will give you the know-how to recognize and capitalize on a promising public relations opportunity and the ability to diffuse negative press in a crisis.

PREPARE FOR ATTENTION

There are times when your institution can't anticipate or avoid media attention. But you can prepare for your time in the spotlight. Study other crises. "Very few people sit around the table and say, 'What are the storm clouds on the horizon?'" observes Christopher Simpson of SimpsonScarborough, a higher ed marketing company. But they should. "You can expect or predict crises--you just don't know the timing of them," he notes. So it's important to be aware of the crises that happen at other colleges and universities, evaluate how they were handled, and then take appropriate steps to ensure that they don't happen to your institution. Take campus fires, for example. Since early in 2000, the American Society of Safety Engineers indicates that IHEs have experienced 10 deadly on- or off-campus fires. Simpson says there's no excuse not to be prepared for a fire emergency.

Know your threats and weaknesses. Understand the environmental factors that could negatively affect your institution. Then create ways to respond to them. …

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