Why are colleges still writing press releases?

Everybody knows (well, I hope they do) that the dissemination of information and the news media themselves have changed immensely in the past few years. Today, colleges can reach large audiences for their stories, photos and videos via social media, while most of what were known as “print media” outlets have slashed editorial staff, cut back on publication dates and (in some places) evolve toward digital-first publication.

Against that backdrop, many colleges are still writing traditional press releases and not changing their view of how to generate and disseminate stories. But should they?

Two great sessions at the recent SUNYCUAD conference — Greg Kie’s “Why Are We Still Writing Press Releases?” and a panel presentation on “What’s Next for Local and Regional Media” hosted by Alexandra Jacobs Wilke — gave a fabulous and fascinating overview of this topic.

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The game has changed

The panel presentation, moderated by former higher education journalist Wilke now with SUNY Potsdam, featured Tim Farkas of Northern New York Newspapers; Ron Lombard of Time Warner Cable News; and Ellen Rocco, station manager for North Country Public Radio.

Their message was clear: They’re just not interested in getting buried in press releases. In fact, the more releases you sent, especially if they had little news value, the less likely some news orgs would even look at them in the busy, competitive news marketplace. Quality trumps quantity.

What do they want? News. Good stories. Things that will interest their audiences. But we (as communicators) need to facilitate this, not complicate it. We need to be more selective in what we send them, and focus on conveying relevant, interesting stories.

Lombard explained that news junkies still very much exist, but how and where they consume the news has changed. Farkas noted that the Watertown Daily Times has become digital-first and dedicates resources to getting its stories out to audiences via social media (do colleges follow their lead?). My favorite line from Rocco, whose operation has evolved from radio to media because young people don’t even have radios any more, was that “you don’t have to justify investing in new media” if your goals include younger audiences, because that’s where they are.

Instead of piles of press releases, they said, should focus on relationships and strategy: What do particular news outlets want? What don’t they want? If we have an outstanding feature story, they advised, consider personally reaching out and pitching it instead of burying it in an avalanche of releases.

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Think news, not press

Kie’s thought-provoking session drew on the SUNY Canton communicator and former journalist’s experiences as well as interviews with others. Ramming out releases loaded with marketing-speak and embellishment to meet marketing goals — but not news value — means more work for those editors, already drowning in releases, who may just let your releases sink into oblivion.

We should essentially, Kie says, write NEWS releases not PRESS releases, because the press is not our audience — readers are. We should be more selective in what we send and to whom we send it. We should avoid “cutesy leads,” Paul Riede of the Syracuse Media Group told Kie, and instead provide concise information and let media outlets decide what to do with it.

The edicts of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” are still relevant: “Omit needless words” and “Eschew obfuscation.” Be concise and clear. Or to borrow a beautiful phrase I heard recently: Nobody cares how a clock works. They just care what time it is.

But Kie sees use for relevant news releases which, when they run in online publications that take our submissions, surface on Google News and may lead to more discovery. He cited “Why Bullies Thrive at Work,” penned by Kevin Manne at the University at Buffalo, that started as a news release on faculty research and found its way into Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal, the “Today” show and BBC Radio, among other places. Admittedly that story was very topical since bullying was much in the news at the time, but it also represented an actual news story told with clarity and relevance that found a large and willing audience.

Kie mentioned the leaked findings of the New York Times’ innovation report, and its implications that newsrooms need to consider websites and social media channels part of distribution. Your news stories on your .edu site (ours is considered a Google News source) and shared on Facebook and Twitter can reach web-savvy and socially active audiences as readily as they can appear in what we once called newspapers.

In the end, you want win-win situations. “When you can write the type of press release that is aligned with the news media’s own goals and needs,” Colin Matthews, CEO of readMedia, told Kie, “they’ll not only print the release but thank you for it.” Worth noting that readMedia, which started as a conduit for sending student hometown news releases (probably news with the highest publication rate of all), has set the pace by evolving into a company that provides hometowners that also get distributed via social media through the students themselves (who can also build online profiles) via their Merit tool — which dovetails with evolving definitions of media and information flow.

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Less noise, more strategy

If you’re in an office that spends more staff time cultivating, writing, editing and distributing news releases for no other reason than because “that’s what we’ve always done,” it’s time to re-evaluate things. If you put out a high volume of press releases without any discretion, all you’re doing is creating more work … and more noise. When you need to do less — especially because it’s crowding out opportunities to do work that will get a higher payoff with your audiences than that news release on page 22 of a local shopper that almost nobody will read — you could consider asking some questions to steer your writing priorities:

1. Does this support our strategic communication goals?
2. Does this serve a substantial audience?

All communication should have goals. When your time and resources are limited, you shouldn’t create a news release, a webpage or a social media account “just because” — these should all involve strategy.

Strategic communication goals can be viewed broadly or narrowly. For us, promoting academic reputation — which I loosely define as “showing why attending or working at Oswego can be awesome” — is key, so promoting student or faculty research is part of that, made easier when you can show relevance that the average person can understand. If we’re opening a new building or adding a new major, however, the bottom line is not the building or program itself (and definitely, imho, not a process story) but how it will benefit our students (provide better labs and opportunities, meet a professional need or niche).

The problem we all face is tradition, the many press releases that we’ve always sent just because somebody asked us to … that many media outlets don’t even want, let alone want to run.

Digital (r)evolution

Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 10.34.50 PMAs Herbert Spenser and Charles Darwin posited back in the 19th century, those who will survive and thrive are those who best adapt. Just a few days ago, Amazon bowed to the changing marketplace by placing its Digital Music section (formerly CDs and MP3s) front and center and moving its CDs down the menu into a CDs and Vinyl submenu in Movies, Music and Games. Couple that with the aforementioned New York Times innovation report and you’d have to be either obstinate or incredibly nostalgic/romantic to not realize the future (or perhaps even the present) lives in the digital realm.

If media outlets are going digital-first, shouldn’t we? Are we creating online newsrooms that showcase our best or are we sending (often-unwanted) e-blasts to editors? Or are we somewhere in between?

But let me clarify: Telling great stories on our websites and getting positive media attention are not mutually exclusive. Stories of interest to our key audiences are, by definition, news. Every media outlet wants news, wants to share stories that move their readers. The more we clutter the streams with off-point releases, the less they will even try to see the diamonds when they emerge.

We also need to realize that news releases are just one possible method of storytelling. Our student-created and student-centered videos such as Head2Toe Health: Kevin Graham, Grad Student/Pro Wrestler (approaching 2,000 views) and Monotype Printing at SUNY Oswego (above 1,300 views and counting) reach bigger (and wider) audiences than if we had merely blasted them out as news releases — in large part because the video medium tells the stories better. Similarly, standalone posts on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram can concisely and elegantly communicate better, quicker and more effectively — directly to key stakeholders — than pouring hours into a press release with little readership or relevance.

There’s no perfect answer to the question of why colleges still send news releases, or if they should, but it’s something we all ought to revisit and revise if possible. Our news should be, well, news and we should create stories welcomed by editors and readers alike, anywhere they want to find it.

10 Comments

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10 responses to “Why are colleges still writing press releases?

  1. Pingback: Educational Policy Information

  2. Tim, really helpful clarification to a problem our office has been talking through for months now. Thanks so much for making the lightbulb go off for me!

  3. Tim

    Thanks, Eric! I think it’s a question all of us struggle with. Here’s hoping we can start coming up with answers!

  4. Thanks for this, Tim. Greg Kie’s presentation (as reported by Cassi Greenlee in the first link you share) provides the most common (and saddest) answer to the question you post.

    Q: Why are colleges still writing press releases?

    A: Because our bosses tell us to.

    While I agree that the term “press” release is antiquated (we use the term “news release” and have for years) the real question isn’t so much what we call these items of information. The real question is: “Why do we write such crappy news releases?”

    As you rightly point out, the news media are looking for stories and news. Not marketing speak.

  5. JLM

    “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it!”…the response that scares me with fear.

    News that is actual news – not manufactured news. And by news, I mean stories. Stories about people, impact…stories that evoke emotion. When I sat down looked at the volume of releases coming out of our department, I laughed loudly in disgust. An average of one a day. Are you kidding me!?

  6. Tim

    Andrew: That comment brought its share of sad head-nods. That’s why I feel it’s important that we take all these lessons to heart and reconsider why and to whom we send everything — because there appears to be a major disconnect between senders and recipients.

    JLM: Agreed. Those are the most dangerous words in any business, any aspect of life really … they lead to complacency, stagnation and a fear of new ideas. When I posted a link to this on Facebook, a friend in academia shared the excellent term “productivity theatre” — “look at what we’re doing!” or doing things to provide something to show you’re doing something — which unfortunately provides for skewed metrics of what’s really accomplished.

  7. I’m also wrestling with similar questions. While we’ve brought an editor’s judgment to the items we choose to distribute as news releases, we struggle to connect how exactly “sharing our story” connects with metrics important to the institution. Even when our stories end up on the front page of the local newspaper, it’s hard to say how to definitively say how much that affected enrollment, giving, etc.

  8. Pingback: Friday Five: Good reads for #highered | Higher Ed Marketing

  9. Pingback: Quick take: On incremental web improvements | InsideTimsHead

  10. Tim

    Brandon: It’s an odd dichotomy how many colleges prioritize a good placement in the local news media, yet their student recruitment efforts may be focused on markets hundreds of miles away. Maybe it’s the instant gratification, the ability to point to something, even if one can’t easily define the metrics of it.

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