Tag Archives: communication

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.

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In social media, 1 big picnic in 1 park beats 100 scattered picnics

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When our new students are all on campus at the end of August, we throw them one big picnic under one big tent on the college quad. And it’s glorious (even if we’ve had a couple monsoons, students always had fun). Watching the #hewebmi conference tweet stream led me to this analogy: On social media, one big picnic in one park is better than 100 small ones in other parks.

Screen shot 2014-05-22 at 11.58.05 AMBlame Brian David Proffer of Marygrove College for triggering it with this tweet (RTed to my attention by the fabulous Alaina Weins of UM-Flint): “Points of wisdom: One site, one Facebook page, one Twitter feed, etc.” In short, make sure your community has one central place it can go to consume the best content your college has available.

But so many folks on so many campuses confuse and confound this notion. So many departments, offices and programs want their own Twitter feeds or Facebook pages with their own brand and logo and messages … and many efforts are abandoned after a few days or tweets that go nowhere because there’s nothing engaging happening and/or the student hired to run it graduates. And while some have valid reasons for that channel, many charge in with no content strategy — “let’s make a Facebook!” “let’s do a Twitter!” — or plan for providing and sustaining content, let alone how to respond to people who have questions. (Many accounts also feed updates into something that pushes them into Facebook and spits out cutoff sentences with Facebook links into Twitter, which essentially says they have no real interest in Twitter as anything but a place to blast messages … which isn’t the purpose of social media.)

To use a Memorial Day weekend (or, previously, Victoria Day in Canada) analogy: Wouldn’t you rather have all your friends get together at one picnic or barbecue, instead of having to drive all over the place to different gatherings? Of course. Similarly, your students probably want to have one main source of information they can trust and rely upon for constant updates — or, to continue the analogy, for the informative sustenance they need and want.

On college campuses, a staggering amount of time and effort is wasted by individual entities creating, promoting, haphazardly updating and often abandoning social media efforts. It’s like making a huge pot of macaroni salad for a picnic you want to control, even if it means nobody gets to eat it. But as a central social media communicator, I feel a need to do a better job of inviting and making everybody welcome at one big amazing picnic where everybody brings their own tasty dish to help nourish our campus community.

Screen shot 2014-05-22 at 12.12.53 PMBut how do we get there or, as my friend Deborah Edwards-Onoro sagely asks, “how to manage various stakeholders who want to ensure their voice is heard?” Not easy, but maybe it’s an opportunity for communication and collaboration.

Here’s my first take: I want to start building an outreach and process with our stakeholders. Basically along the lines of: “We want to share your awesome events and stories via social media. Here’s how you can submit them and here’s what we’re looking for.” As noted before, I love retweeting students who post great photos, student orgs who tweet details about upcoming events, anybody who has a link to a good story about one of our students/faculty or staff members/alumni. My guidepost is simple: Amplify the awesome that is part of our college family.

I’m not saying others shouldn’t have active accounts that serve their audiences, but that we should all work together to provide one conduit that improves everybody’s experience. After all, if @sunyoswego retweets a student club, we’re basically saying, “hey, here’s great content from this account you may consider following.” When various entities work together under one event hashtag (like our #ozwhiteout weekend) instead of everyone making their own hashtags, you see how efforts can dovetail to make a greater whole. In the college’s day-to-day picture, everybody’s content builds something bigger and more cohesive that paints the panorama of our institution beyond one snapshot or glimpse.

It sounds ambitious, and it is, but nothing good comes without effort. And if it sparks more conversations and collaborations and communications in the process, working together for a huge picnic in one park — or social media account — could feed and sustain well beyond one meal.

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Potential students have questions. Provide answers. Get creative.

A previous blog entry lamented the lame state of FAQ pages and other stale/outmoded non-helpful attempts to help future students. How do we get past that? We listen, we look for creative solutions and we work with our talented current students.

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Our most notable effort is the Alyssa Answers Your Questions Q&As with student video blogger Alyssa Levenberg, part of her popular Alyssa Explains It All video blog series. The past two years, she has asked accepted students in our closed Class of 2017 and Class of 2018 Facebook groups to post questions she can answer in video form. The curious students — many of whom are still deciding between Oswego and other schools — have provided plenty of questions and this year (for the second time), Alyssa had so much that she developed a Part One and Part Two to accommodate all the answers.

These are not from-the-guidebook answers and this kind of project could worry any administrators who covet complete control of all communication channels. And while Alyssa gets questions on subjects students wouldn’t ask administrators in the first place, she handles them positively and constructively. She is an ambassador for Oswego (she’s interning with me this year) but I don’t stage manage her work … because, frankly, her video blogs wouldn’t be as successful if she didn’t have this kind of creative freedom. I may come back and say, “hey, maybe you can elaborate on this point for another video,” and sometimes we talk out potential video ideas, but once we sign off on a concept, she runs with it.

And if you’re considering Oswego, of course you would take Alyssa more seriously as a source than some old dude like me. Current students, I like to say, are what prospective students want to be because they can’t wait to get into college and live that life.

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“What’s the best dorm to live in?” We heard this countless times, in various forms, in the Class of 2017 group but there is no one answer, because it depends on what you want and what you value. How to communicate this? Again, we decided to get creative and tap our talented students.

The resulting “Why live in ___________?” video series was a team effort. Alex, an awesome contact in Residence Life and Housing (whom we invited to be part of the 2017 group) saw the value and worked with colleagues to find students to “sell” why their hall was a great place to live. My graduate assistant videographer at the time, Kevin Graham, spent a lot of time on interviews and editing, and did a phenomenal job on the finished product.

While not everybody will sit through 13 videos, having the playlist on YouTube — and shared on social media and embedded on our site — means viewers can browse. Others may find individual videos via the power of YouTube (and its parent company, Google) for searches … it’s no coincidence we phrased the title as a question. But it works better than some administrator talking or impersonal virtual tour embedded in an app you have to download because it’s widely accessible and has current students pitching their homes.

We don’t use video for everything. Last year, when we would see multiple questions in our Facebook groups on a particular club or aspect of campus, our interns would blog on that subject and we’d post up the link. In short, we let our audience interest drive some of our creative process. If we value our potential students, we should keep them in mind as we create content. And if current students can serve as virtual ambassadors, entertainingly explaining what college is like, they can connect even better.

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Stop “e-blasting.” Start communicating.

Of all the tired and tiresome phrases showing how we misunderstand, disunderstand or disregard our audience, the phrase “e-blast” probably tops (bottoms?) the list. I’ll hear people say “we’re going to send an e-mail blast” or “let’s do an e-blast” and I wonder … that doesn’t sound very respectful or considerate of our audience, does it?

If we Google the definition, it basically describes an act of violence:

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Do we want to create “a destructive wave” toward our audiences? Are we admitting that what we send is just “a strong gust of air”? (Maybe this is more applicable than some realize.) Or we trying to “blow up or break apart” valued customers? Are our e-blasts indeed “a loud continuous … noise” that leaves our audience “expressing annoyance”?

You’re not blasting your audiences — you’re communicating with them. At least if you really care about your audience. And you should. Every day we are bombarded with messages, often via emails, and it may be clear when we feel like we’re being “blasted” and when somebody is actually trying to communicate with us. In addition, so much professional communication isn’t one-way any more — you want to create a connection, a dialogue, a beneficial relationship. You shouldn’t want to blast everyone unfortunate enough to be on your email list. We’re all busy enough without having to deal with misdirected emails — I get everything from people selling fundraising tips to lab animals (!) — and you should respect that time is a very precious resource.

Screen shot 2013-11-14 at 12.07.02 PMSo all credit to people like my friend Leah Landry at WRVO who stand up to say “no” to this phrase. We all should.

“Why is this important?” you may ask. The phrase “e-blast” or “e-mail blast” is symptomatic of a mindset that communication tools are weapons more than they are interactive channels. We’ve all seen the Facebook pages that are just compendia of brutal copy-and-paste listings, the Twitter accounts that just tweet but never reply or retweet or otherwise engage.

I don’t think of social media as a megaphone, but as a potluck party. Yes, a party … where we all gather, bring what we have to the table, share and learn and nourish ourselves. And along the way, we all help each other, everybody gets fed and life is a little better. There’s no place for blasting … only for conversation, sharing and enlightenment. Isn’t that how we should live in the first place?

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new to working in social media? 5 common mistakes to avoid.

It’s the time of year when many places have new people working in social media management, whether interns for colleges or other accounts or new hires ready to roll in this field. Which is exciting. And yet. I look at my Twitter ticker or Facebook feed and see so many people making simple mistakes that make me weep a little. So here are five common mistakes in social media you’ll want to avoid to make it all easier.

Watch your @. If you are replying to another Twitter account, an @ is entirely appropriate. If you’re trying to promote something and start with an @, you’re restricting your audience to only those following both accounts. If you want this message to reach your full audience, the answer is simple: Don’t start with an @! If you work in social media, you should be clever enough to know how to reword it.

Avoid the horse latitudesDifferent studies say different things about when is the best time to post in social media, but what generally matters most is the content. After all, our most popular Facebook post ever went up on a Friday evening, which many self-styled “social media gurus” would advise against. That said, you should examine when your target market is active and when it’s not. When I see accounts post things appealing to students at 4:30 a.m., that doesn’t seem very wise. Lazy Sunday afternoons are also not the ideal time to try to engage a wide conversation with a general (not necessarily inspiring) question. And if there’s a much-tweeted event (Super Bowl™, award shows, “Walking Dead” season finale, etc.), any tweets — especially off topic — will drown in the flood.

Don’t be a robot. A friend of mine who just assumed greater social media responsibility announced she was unhooking the auto-feed that blasted her school’s Facebook and Twitter accounts simultaneously. And there was much rejoicing. A tweet that is awkwardly cut off in the middle and sports a Facebook link is essentially saying: “I really don’t care about Twitter.” Twitter and Facebook are two distinctly different media with different strengths and different audiences. You don’t run a TV ad on the radio or vice versa. Your social media outlets — while they should be integrated — also should have their own lives. If you can’t find 15 seconds to post something separately in Twitter and Facebook, you really don’t care about your audience.

Have conversations. Social media is not a bullhorn; it’s a conversation. Or a series of conversations. If your Facebook account is just your news releases with hardly any comments or likes, or if your Twitter account is just your posts with no @s or RTs, then it’s not very social. Also, when you post, don’t throw out lame marketing taglines. Sound like a human (see above), as if you were having a conversation with friends. Because even if you’re working social media for a brand, you ARE having a conversation with friends.

Know which account you’re in. Yes, at some point or another, we’ve probably posted something from the wrong account in haste. This is usually harmless, like when I answered a question last week from @TimNekritz via Tweetdeck forgetting to switch over to @sunyoswego. But there’s always the famous “#gettngslizzerd” example where a Red Cross employee accidentally posted about drinking exploits under the official account. To their credit, the Red Cross responded magnificently so the story had a happy ending. In terms of mobile posting, I make sure my personal Twitter account and any professional accounts are on different apps so I don’t have to worry about signing in or out. Whatever method you use, check what you’re doing so you don’t become a social media case study.

All that said, if you’re new to the field of social media management: Congratulations! It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s very fulfilling to help others and make connections. And know that there’s a massive support group of others working in this area on Twitter and elsewhere always willing to help with advice and feedback. After all, social media is about humans being social and helpful, and it really is a great job and community.

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building incoming student communities via invite-only facebook groups.

When it comes to community building and management for incoming students, you can find many models involving various costs, commitment levels and features. Like other colleges, we’ve tried many things and sat through countless vendor pitches. So when our orientation coordinator approached me with a modest proposal to build two private invite-only Facebook groups — one for incoming freshmen, one for incoming transfers — it seemed worth a shot.

Like any other community-building attempt on social media, this meant addressing key points:

Staffing: Our orientation operation has many devoted, outgoing and tireless Laker Leaders and other student workers ready to help. Since they learn to be real-life ambassadors during orientation, they are well-suited to playing a similar role in social media.

Security: We had email addresses for incoming students and can invite them via sending a direct link. But coordinators were concerned this link could be shared around and others could get in, so they wanted to verify everyone who asked to join. This is especially hard when students are not using their full name or use a variation of their name as their Facebook handle. The positive about the security is that it keeps out spammers and creepers (and, some students would say happily, parents!), thus maintaining a good atmosphere for interaction.

Building: Security concerns and the added step for verification created a bottleneck for those wishing to join. Shortly after the initial email, I went to the group and found more than 100 students awaiting approval from the community’s coordinators! It is good to see that kind of enthusiastic response but if anyone is stuck in the queue too long it’s not the best introduction. Also, we already have a public-facing Class of 2016 Community on Facebook — which escorted students from interest to application to acceptance to enrollment to pre-orientation — that has more than 700 members and remains very active.

Sustaining: Student workers have done a nice job of generating conversations, posting photos and answering questions. The question-answering was a bit rocky at first but it’s improving. The incoming students have generated some great conversations on a variety of topics. One tool that may or may not see much use is our behind-the-scenes wiki with answers to a lot of commonly asked questions. The excitement on all sides is still high, so maybe this is a bit of a honeymoon phase, but other than some transfers concerned about room-assignment issues, the conversations have been decidedly upbeat.

This experiment bears watching, but we’ve already seen some nice wins. One involves an oft-praised employee in residence life who has made a lot of people happy by working her magic in accommodating students wanting to switch rooms. And transfer commuters — a group that often feels like they get less attention — started a wonderful, supportive conversation that has already cemented great connections. So while this is a preliminary snapshot, and I’m not sure how far into the lifecycle this project will run, I’ll track and report results as the project continues.

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how we use pinterest: it’s about goals, users and gut.

If you work in social media, you couldn’t help but catch the buzz over Pinterest, which repeatedly smashed records for fastest social media community to [insert just about any number] members. We’ve started up a Pinterest page — but not because it’s the next shiny object. The SUNY Oswego Pinterest page came about because we saw another way to connect with key users, fulfill communication goals … and because of an intangible gut instinct.

When I brought the idea of Pinterest up to our student social media team, the three young women in the group were immediately excited about it. That doesn’t happen when I mention working in Twitter or Formspring or Foursquare, so my gut instantly realized that if part of our target market was this into the platform, it had real potential. Of course, that Pinterest mainly appeals to women is considered a punchline in some sectors … but it’s foolish to pooh-pooh such a huge market (around 55 percent of our students are female, for one thing).

One intern, Jenna, immediately thought of two potential boards — photos of items students should bring when moving in (one of the questions we hear the most in social media) and images of places of interest in the Oswego community (ditto). Thus our ongoing goal of better communicating with potential/incoming students gives one great peg for using Pinterest. As I always say: Goals first, then tools. Ideas for boards about various living options, activities on campus, sporting events and even winter preparation followed … all produced by students on the team.

I’ve also talked to key folks in alumni relations, who are also interested in photos and items of interest to alumni. One of the alumni magazine’s most popular stories involved images and stories of famous performers who played Oswego over the years, so historic photo galleries are in the planning stages. Thus we can offer content that spans the student lifecycle — from when they’re choosing a college to graduates recalling their glory days.

Say what you will about Pinterest, but if your institution has goals, motivated people (students!) working on it and a focus on content of interest to your audience, it’s well worth pursuing.

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