Tag Archives: higher education

A successful conference that discussed failure.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Keynote presenter Felicia Day with the incomparable HighEdWeb President Colleen Brennan-Barry.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

Intended or not, that was a major message coming through for HighEdWeb 2017 (#heweb17) that rocked and inspired hundreds of attendees in Hartford. The conference itself was a tremendous success — and one that, perhaps paradoxically — addressed the idea of failure, and why it’s part of the process, more than any other gathering I can recall.

A moving and magnificent keynote by actor, author and content creator Felicia Day especially drove the point home. Day — who pioneered successful crowdfunding for entertainment and has brought the enjoyment of a fun nerdy character to everything from her project “The Guild” to “Supernatural” to “Dr. Horrible’s Singalong” to the “Mystery Science Theatre 3000” reboot — was honest in how many times she took the wrong path on the way to an amazing career.

“Mistakes are rewarding,” she said at one point. “They are the best thing you can do.” She added that people are more successful when they risk failure instead of moving cautiously toward what they consider guaranteed success.

Day added we should treat ourselves as our own research projects — the key is to discover ourselves, as “the greatest tragedy is to not be who you are.” She has coped with anxiety and a desire to be perfect, and learned along the way there should be no shame to reach out for help, whether via a support group or counseling or anything that can bolster our mental health.

She said her own daughter serves as a kind of inspiration: We all have some joy in our lives we wouldn’t have if not for mistakes. Lose the regret, Day advised, and instead of dwelling in negativity, live a good and kind life that shows that being different, even being nerdy, is cool.

I had the honor of asking a question in the resulting audience Q&A, which essentially said that, yes, this really inspired us, but how can we bring the similar attitude — mistakes are OK and fuel success — back to the sometimes risk-averse atmosphere of higher education? While acknowledging that Hollywood was very risk-averse, which is why she independently funded so many wonderful projects, Day noted the idea of doing pilots the way the TV industry does is a great solution. Doing a pilot project, no matter how small, that shows something can be done is a useful first step to larger projects that can help our students, our colleges and our world.

One thing is certain: Bringing the honest, intelligent and engaging Felicia Day as a keynote speaker was by no means a mistake.

Theme warning

Presentation slide: Get permission to fail

Unfortunately, I don’t even realize which presentation featured the slide Amy Wolf shared about getting permission to fail, but it perfectly encompasses something that came up a few times.

In her session that won the Best of Conference award, “The Art and Science of Collaboration,” Day Kibilds of Western University discussed using lessons learned and avoiding past mistakes can develop collaboration and drive winning projects. All with a “Game of Thrones” theme, I should add. In short, she encouraged us that if think about worst-case scenarios (like zombie White Walkers overrunning the Seven Kingdoms) to motivate stakeholders to work together, if we have the right players to have honest and healthy discussions, and if we acknowledge institutional mistakes and/or inconveniences, projects can be turned around if treated as an opportunity for learning.

Unknowingly, I joined the trend as I presented “7 Habit[at]s of Social Media Storytelling.” (Thank you to Donna Talarico for the marvelous recap!) And I’m not just saying out of realization as I developed the presentation I had taken the wrong approach — don’t base it on channels but on content and process instead — and had to practically rewrite the whole thing, nor because I goofed in thinking I could get it completed in just 45 minutes (sorry).

Nope. I’m happy that the presentation included a slide that read:

You will fail sometimes, but that’s OK.

The only people who never fail are people who never try.

And this #heweb17 wonderfully encouraged us to try, fail and try again. It’s really the only road to success.

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Web

The struggle is real: The hero’s journey and higher ed storytelling.

Hiking bootsDid you struggle in school? Socially? Emotionally? Or academically? In college? High school? Or even elementary school?

If you’re a human being, you can answer “yes” to that, on some level.

Did the school help you overcome these struggles? Through knowledge? Through helping you gain confidence? Through helping you build your future?

If the answer to this is “yes,” and how strong a “yes” it is, it bespeaks your love and affinity for the school.

Hero’s journey

Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell studied many of most enduring stories to come up with a literary framework known as the hero’s journey — I teach it to classes as it’s indicative of what can drive great storytelling:

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the First Threshold
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach
  • Ordeal
  • Reward
  • The Road Back
  • Resurrection Hero  
  • Return with Elixir

Not every great story fits this pattern, but think about stories like “The Hobbit” or “Star Wars,” in terms of an ordinary hobbit or human asked to take on an adventure, refusing it until meeting a mentor (Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi) and the steps that followed. Some of the elements will exist in any story — even your own.

Schools and struggles

Every level of education brings challenges inside and outside the classroom, and steps in your personal journey. My own, for example:

Weedsport High School: The classes and coursework came easy. Socializing was a bigger challenge. But that’s not an atypical teenage story? As a result, my high school years don’t hold much glory in my mind.

Cayuga Community College: The classes were a bit more challenging, but I didn’t have many difficulties, except for when I suffered a concussion, missed a few days and came back arrogantly thinking I didn’t need to review what I’d missed. Bombing a calculus quiz straightened out that conceit. But I still lived at home, so it felt like an extension of high school.

The College at Brockport: Hello, struggles! Social. Emotional. Psychological. Moral. Intellectual.  The true coming-of-age story began. I was a shy and skinny teen with bad hair and acne, but until then I’d always had “the smart kid” thing going for me, but now I was surrounded by smart people. So I had to focus on creativity and work ethic as the ways to make a mark — and Brockport created an environment where you could succeed with these traits.

SUNY Oswego: Going back for my master’s degree was the most intellectually challenging and rigorous experience of my education. Which is to say: I loved it! By this time I was (allegedly) mature and (slightly) less socially awkward, so even with a full-time job, the focus on the studies themselves was marvelous and continued my intellectual growth. I really use perspectives and historical insights from my master’s studies all the time.

If you looked at my giving patterns toward my alma maters, they tend to increase in direct proportion toward those institutions that presented me with challenges and solutions. More on that after this metaphor.

Climb every mountain

Many years ago, my friends Michelle and Brent talked me into climbing Whiteface Mountain with them. It’s the fifth-highest peak in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, with the greatest vertical drop this side of the Rockies — and the reward of an inspiring view. It’s almost perhaps the best-known mountain in the ADK because it offers two ways up: by car up a winding highway or — the road less traveled — a challenging physical climb.

If you climb by foot, the trail begins with steep, craggy ascent that if you’re not careful you can burn out your legs or lungs early (spoiler: I sort of did). Then, like any Adirondack Mountain, you have a lot of trails with various levels of ascension. To finally reach the 4,867-summit, you have to do some Alpine-style bouldering scrambling over large boulders. To make it to the summit by climbing really feels like an accomplishment.

As we three emerged at the top, cars were pulling up, including one with a family from Tennessee, where a child looked up at Michelle and said, “are you a hiker?” Then it started raining. The three of us sat inside, muddy and sweaty and probably not smelling great, eating the sandwiches we packed. In perhaps a delicious irony, we ate while watching tourists enter the gift shop and emerge with merch that included “I climbed Whiteface Mountain” T-shirts. We didn’t buy the shirts; we’d earned something else.

For the people who motored up, it’s probably one more tourist stop in their various travels, not meaning much more than a really cool view and a T-shirt or trinket. To me, it was one of the most unforgettable physical feats I’ve accomplished, something I didn’t think I could do but I somehow did. It’s not a mark on a tourist guide so much as a clicked checkbox of life I recall fondly.

As a result, I still support the Adirondacks when I can, whether donating to causes in or traveling to this wonderful region. If I drove up that day instead of climbing, I wouldn’t have this connection. The struggle was real, but the journey was amazing.

Educational/fundraising connection

All these things recently occurred to me as having a connection to what we do as higher education communicators or to those working in alumni relations or development. The mountains students climb, and our help along the way, leave impressions and connections with our educational institutions.

Several years ago, one of my alma maters asked me to serve as an honorary representative for my [number redacted] class reunion. (Why remains a mystery.) My main function was to sign a letter, and they offered to write a first draft. It was a generic and standard letter, but I could modify. I thought back to the reason I stayed connected — the knowledge attained, memories gained, the friends made — and went with more of a “do you remember …” theme tied to our universal experiences.

If I had that chance again, I realize I’d talk more about the shared challenges, the trials and triumphs of college life, and how we came out as better people who were better equipped for success. About the journey to the (more or less) happy ending — that’s what resonates as much as anything.

When my friend Georgy Cohen of Oho Interactive was doing focus groups with students for a college client, some complained that everybody they saw in profiles were too perfect. They didn’t see people who struggled like they did, who needed to overcome, and how the college might play into that transformation.

In a great question for businesses everywhere, Ron Ploof has asked: “Is our product King Arthur or Excalibur?” Whatever you do or make, your product — or college — should be Excalibur, making possible the hero’s journey of your students, the noble quest that is education and fulfillment and a better future.

As I prepare to send a check to one of my alma maters, thinking of the journey and how it helped along the way, I realize that the more challenges I faced and how much the school helped has really played into why I give.

So the challenge to us as college communicators and fundraisers is to recognize these challenges. As a storyteller and director of an online newsroom, I need to convey the stories of students who are finding their way, getting better by the day, due to college experiences. For college administrators, it’s realization that fostering student success, of putting people over outdated policies, of realizing all the different journeys our students take, is a primary concern. For alumni and development professionals, it’s acknowledging that struggles are a part of growth, the building blocks to a great story, that can create universal understanding of why supporting colleges is important.

Leave a comment

Filed under words

‘Am I the only one …’: On college, isolation and social media

Active Minds'

Active Minds’ “Send Silence Packing” display visited SUNY Oswego.

At first I thought it perhaps a rhetorical quirk. But as I saw it more and more in posts by incoming students in our Facebook group, it emerged as a pattern. And one that causes a bit of concern.

  • “Am I the only one who doesn’t have a roommate yet?”
  • “Am I the only one without a housing assignment?”
  • “So I’m the only person without a full schedule.”
  • “Looks like I’m the only person who doesn’t have a roommate yet.”

Beyond the fact that, no, they were never “the only one” in that situation — in fact, most of their peers were in the same boat — the wording is intriguing. Not “does anybody else have …” or “who else doesn’t have …” but about being the “only” person missing out on the fun. There’s a fear of exclusion pattern among these posts — sure, it’s partly concern that others have something they don’t, but the phrase speaks to isolation.

But then reading an outstanding, troubling New York Times piece, Campus suicide and the pressure of perfection, drove home the point that thinking you’re an outsider, isolated and lonely when entering college can make an already-stressful situation worse. Couple that with a social media where everybody seems to having more fun and fabulous lives than you, and it’s an issue that needs more attention.

Stranger in a strange land

I can identify with how students can feel isolated all too well. After finishing my associate’s degree at home, I went away to a college where I did not know a single soul (one place social media certainly helps). My roommate was a nice guy, but we didn’t click. Within a couple days, it seemed my suitemates were already making plans where I wasn’t invited. The dorm had an ice cream social in the lounge where I had ice cream but was too shy to be social.

The loneliest I’ve ever been and on the edge of despondency, I’d wander out to stare at the nearby canal. “College was supposed to be awesome, but am I the only one not having any fun?” I thought to myself. “Everybody else is enjoying themselves way more than me.” I felt homesick, isolated, unsure why what was supposed to be the best time of my life suddenly felt like one of the worst. But I was determined to make college work — I’d be the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree — and after two weeks of loneliness despite being surrounded by friendly people, I made my way to the college newspaper, quickly found a tribe and soon found college the enjoyable experience I expected.

Even in this supposedly more interconnected society, many students entering colleges across the country will feel the same way I did — wondering if they’re “the only one” who feels so lonely — but perhaps do not find their lifeline. Some may drop out, some may turn to drugs or alcohol … and some may decide they can’t go on at all.

The Internet is an illusion

The most famous poem from his engrossing “Spoon River Anthology,” Edward Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” tells the story of a man who was “a gentleman from sole to crown” and “richer than a king,” a man everybody in town envied. But for whatever reason, he also was unspeakably unhappy, as the poem ends:

So on we worked, and waited for the light
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Yet that jarring conclusion pales in comparison with tales of real life, such as Penn State student Madison Holleran. Talented, pretty, a successful student-athlete and with seemingly plenty of friends, Madison’s Instagram feed showed a life many a lonely student would envy. But according to an excellent ESPN feature by Kate Fagan, Split Image, Madison was a perfectionist who could not deal with failure or disappointment — or her perception of falling short. A 19-year-old with seemingly everything to live for, Madison Holleran committed suicide in January 2014.

According to Active Minds, a group that attempts to empower students, change the stigma of mental illness on campuses and steer students toward healthier choices, some 1,100 students take their own lives every year. The New York Times piece references helicopter parenting — where students aren’t given the opportunity to solve their own problems — as a contributing factor. But it’s not the only evolution that has raised the stakes.

Is it a competition?

College once was for elites, then in the ’50s/’60s the Baby Boom, GI Bill and many other socioeconomic factors led to college systems offering greater accessibility. Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the cold war politics led to the U.S. government pouring money into higher education to produce scientists who could win the technological race. Suddenly college was more widely available, a rite of passage depicted in popular culture. When I went to college, probably about half of my graduating class did not, which was not necessarily uncommon.

Now, for most, college is an expectation of getting ahead. Private courses and consultants show high school students how to excel at standardized tests and make themselves more attractive to institutions. Cottage industries have emerged for both those choosing colleges and the colleges courting them, setting it up as a high-pressure matchmaking exercise. Parents and students make it not only about going to college but more critically about getting into the right school offering the right experiences. And not just any experiences, but experiences where students need to succeed and feel fulfilled. Getting one bad grade in a class can be a big blow; failing a class is devastating.

Put all that into a crucible that is young people coming of age and coming to terms with feelings and coming into a world where they feel they must do everything perfectly — and then project their way of seeing the world, social media, as a place where everybody is happy and successful and winning this perceived competition. So the student asking “am I the only one …” can start believing that they are the outsider, the freak, the failure because of how well everybody else appears to be doing.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. But here is the one thing I’d like everybody to take away from it: Social media is not real life. Don’t compare your daily struggles to the highlight reel you see online. We are all dealing with problems, but there are so many people also willing to help.

Be kind, the old saying goes, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. The start of college could be an important intersection with the future, but it’s just the start (we hope!) of a long journey that may have twists and turns and tribulations and triumphs. But it’s a road we travel together. You are never “the only one,” ever.

9 Comments

Filed under words

SUNYCUAD focuses on the power of play

Thanks to Ed Tatton for the photo of some nerdy guy playing Dig Dug

Thanks to Ed Tatton for the photo of some nerdy guy playing Dig Dug.

The recent SUNYCUAD conference hit one out of the park with its theme on the importance of the power of play. Even though we work in higher education, we too often overlook the importance of curiosity, exploration and wonder in the creative process.

Bob Hambley, designer and partner in Hambly and Woolley, set the tone in the opening plenary by saying that we need to play and be curious to succeed in creative work. He cited the work of Dr. Bruce Duncan Perry, who posited that curiosity leads to a circle of creativity: 

  • Curiosity leads to exploration
  • Which leads to discovery
  • Which leads to pleasure
  • Which leads to repetition
  • Which leads to mastery
  • Which leads to confidence
  • Which leads to more curiosity

The challenge, Hambley said, is that curiosity peaks in humans at about age 5. Is it a coincidence that this is when formal education also tends to begin? Along the way, curiosity is discouraged by disapproval, by fear, by a lack of time, and by craving of certainty. The process of what we call “growing up” tamps our creativity down.

But Hambley thinks we can reverse the process by activity letting our curiosity come out of play. He encourages us to work five things into our regular routine to keep our curiosity strong:

  1. Observe
  2. Inquire
  3. Challenge
  4. Explore
  5. Take risks

The risk-taking part is important. Higher ed focuses so much (too much) on best practices, sometimes to the exclusivity of innovation and new ideas. But we can never evolve without risk. If we fail or if we succeed, the most important thing is that either road leads to learning, Hambley said.

After watching Hambley’s inspiring talk, I emphasized taking risks more in my presentation with (excellent) Oswego student blogger and intern Lizzy Marks, 6 Suggestions for Successful Student Storytelling. To invite student storytelling into your narratives, you have to take risks and trust people. But somebody had to take a risk to create the colleges and universities that make up the SUNY system — and making the system was a big risk in itself. Compared to the risk people like Oswego founder Edward Austin Sheldon took in the 19th century, hiring a student blogger seems like a fairly small deal.

Perhaps the biggest highlight was the trip to Rochester’s Strong Museum of Play, where we explored exhibits on Sesame Street and other children’s programs, rekindled our younger years with classic arcade games and enjoyed the natural wonder of an amazing butterfly garden.

The looks of wonder and amazement in the butterfly garden speak volumes.

The looks of wonder and amazement in the butterfly garden speak volumes.

What was your favorite toy?

A wonderful question that cropped up from time to time was “What was your favorite toy?” For me, it involved trips to the dentist: While becoming creative didn’t require pulling teeth, getting my favorite toys sometimes did.

We went to a dentist named Dr. Betts in Auburn. The most memorable part was that at the end, our reward was selecting a little rubber animal. Which seems small, perhaps, except that our collection of rubber animals turned into a big community. My brothers Joel and Colin assembled their little communities and the Little Animals, as we came to call them, all interacted with each other and had many adventures, from football games to missions of international espionage to battling Star Wars characters.

From the power of playing with the Little Animals, my brothers and I learned three important things that followed us into our creative endeavors:

1. Storytelling. Without leaving the house, those animals went on adventures far and wide, to Soviet Russia, to the moon, to distant planets. We learned to tell a story — generally flights of fancy, yes — but to create characters and motivations and cohesive narratives. I honestly look back with a sense of awe at how sophisticated we were as kids when it came to crafting the adventures of the Little Animals.

2. Collaboration. As noted, all three of us had our own sets of animals, but they all interacted with each other in larger narratives. They generally began with a concept from one of us, often taking from TV or a movie but sometimes just dreamed up, with the others adding to it to keep the action going. In retrospect, I am so grateful for such an awesome preparation for collaborative creative work.

3. Community. Every adventure depended on the Little Animals working together and bringing their own strengths to the table to solve whatever challenge they faced. I still remember my characters like Jerry Cat, Sammy Squirrel, Singo Seal, Danny Dolphin, among others, and how they were all pieces of our larger Little Animal community that showed that togetherness conquered all.

Wow. That’s so much more than I realized. We grow up — or so we think — but how we played as kids continue to influence us. We also need to make sure that childlike curiosity and our willingness to play stay with us too.

Leave a comment

Filed under words

Leadership, shoveling snow and great communities

If somebody said that leaders getting out and shoveling snow was a hallmark of a great community, you’d say that’s crazy, right?

Think again.

A delightful story came through Twitter the other day about Michael Benson, the president of Eastern Kentucky University, showing up to shovel a student’s driveway in response to a tweet. It’s not a new service EKU offers, just a good-natured good deed from Benson, who regularly interacts with students via Twitter and responds to challenges for things like ping-pong games and dodgeball. But this little act of kindness was so on target that it inspired others to take up shovels to help their neighbors and it rightfully earned plenty of media attention.

ekuAfter I shared it, friends at other colleges helped put it into the context of a larger narrative and trend. A friend at Cornell noted that Berea, Kentucky, is considered one of the 20 coolest towns in U.S. Then another colleague from Cornell, Mark Anbinder, recalled how Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick once went around the city with a shovel and some friends to help those who needed it. Ithaca also happens to be considered the Best College Town in America by Business Insider, among many other awards for being an awesome community that occupy a long list on VisitIthaca.com.

Coincidence? Maybe less than it seems.

The best communities and campuses are powered by a spirit where everybody is involved. When the person on top rolls up their sleeves — or tucks them into a coat to take up a shovel — how powerful a message is that? If the college president or the mayor take up shovels and take time to look out for the community, what possible reason could you have for not helping others when you have the opportunity?

I’m not saying your president or mayor needs to go out and shovel — it’s not a very enjoyable opportunity unless you it’s something you like doing — but the act is more metaphorical. It is not the specific actions but the attitudes that are significant.

I still remember so many years later when I was unemployed and unhappy and fresh out of college, visiting my alma mater of Brockport. A dean had a brief exchange with me that suddenly made me feel human again, lifted my spirits and bolstered my beyond-sagging confidence. It wasn’t anything in particular she did or said, nor anything she would ever remember, but just a brief moment where her message to me was simply: You matter.

meeting

We all matter. And just the reminder of this means a lot. Our star student blogger Alyssa Levenberg, of “Alyssa Explains It All” fame, has always wanted to meet our college president, Deborah F. Stanley. After a hockey game, seeing President Stanley there but not feeling like she could just walk up and say “hi,” Alyssa tweeted that she’d like to meet the president. A meeting was arranged, and President Stanley told Alyssa she was a fan of her videos and they talked and Alyssa came out more than impressed. “She really shows why @sunyoswego is awesome,” Alyssa tweeted after the meeting.

But you know what, let’s take this one step further. You always have the ability to make yours a better community. You always have the ability to show others that they matter. Say a kind word. Go do something good. Make somebody happy.

When it comes from the top, the message is strong. But it doesn’t mean that anybody, everybody can’t step up and become a leader of making their community, their world a better place.

1 Comment

Filed under words

Crowdsourcing a historic day, and introducing content ownership strategy

Screen shot 2014-10-17 at 2.13.53 PMLast Thursday was our college’s biggest day in social media, coming together with a combination of preparation, teamwork and an active/engaged extended SUNY Oswego family — and a new focus on content ownership strategy.

Going into it, I recalled a lesson from a college internship at Channel 5 in Syracuse: You can be in the field getting firsthand information or you can be back in the studio getting a bigger picture, but not both. In a way, that has changed in the age of social media, and blending it together represents content ownership strategy … but more on that later.

A man who had his professional TV start at that same Channel 5, Al Roker, returned to his alma mater on Thursday, Oct. 16, to kick off a huge day at SUNY Oswego. One of the hardest-working men in the business started his broadcast day at 5:30 a.m. with live hosting of “Wake Up With Al” from our Marano Campus Center, followed by live hits for the “Today” show. My first text came in at 5:22 a.m., a colleague with a social media question from a reporter: What hashtag he should he use in covering the event?

Screen shot 2014-10-17 at 2.14.15 PMLong before that early hour, I had to make a choice: Should I go out in the field to join the throng of students and others watching Roker tape live segments, or do I set up a virtual “control room” to bring the bigger social picture into focus?

Fortunately, between having a colleague (Jeff Rea, doing a fine job sending iPhone photos) and a very motivated campus posting content, I could fire up Tweetdeck and provide live coverage and amplify the many voices excited about the momentous events — which also included an all-star media summit panel, 24-hour fundraiser and a public launch of our second comprehensive campaign.

Fortunately, I was able to commandeer a conference room to run social media for most of the "Today" show broadcast.

Fortunately, I was able to commandeer a conference room to run social media for most of the “Today” show broadcast.

I chose to pursue a content ownership strategy that represented an extended version of our amplification strategy, or sharing content of excited stakeholders — which can make very powerful crowd-based storytelling.

Amazingly, @alroker and @sunyoswego grabbed the #1 and #2 trends on Twitter for all of New York state on Thursday morning, and the overall 1605 mentions of @sunyoswego in a 24-hour period was higher than every whole previous month but one. We enjoyed a 12.5% engagement rate for tweets, pretty phenomenal giving the quantity of tweets, and in heavy figures for both, we saw 274 retweets and 302 favorites that day. I was especially pleased with so many retweets, denoting storytelling and content that connected well enough for our followers to want to share.

This is pretty sweet.

This is pretty sweet.

We used #ozmediasummit for not just the big panel discussion — which also included Charlie Rose, Ken Auletta (an Oswego alum), Connie Schultz and Dennis Thatcher — but for any event those and other luminaries, including another Oswego grad in ESPN SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy, attended. This was the first year we had everybody focused on one hashtag for this annual mega-event, and it showed: #ozmediasummit earned 1654 mentions in the same period, which (if memory serves) is around 1000 more than previous editions. A wonderful byproduct is that having everybody focused on one tag also maximizes the ability to engage in and archive the discussion.

On Facebook, our content obliterated a pair of high-water marks. That day, our content earned 826 shares — essentially people liked our photos or posts or links enough they wanted to take ownership so their friends could see this content. The content we posted on our page collectively earned 4896 likes, which is more likes than our content has attained for any previous whole month. The 131 comments on our posts were overwhelmingly positive and often reminisces from proud alumni.

Al Roker, king of selfies.

Al Roker, king of selfies.

Meriting special mention: our most popular piece of content of all time — Al Roker’s selfie with a crowd of Oswego students that he posted to Twitter but I repurposed for Facebook. As of Monday morning, it has 2497 likes (over 1000 more than our previous record) and an astounding 437 shares … and still climbing.

Over on Instagram, our content earned 1520 likes, also a resounding record, with 130 #ozmediasummit tag mentions compared to 45 last year. These both likely owe to greater user base, awareness and better marketing of the tag.

This success provides a lesson in our evolving thoughts on content ownership strategy. While content strategy — which includes focusing on who creates content for what audiences and why — is important, you can find even greater gold and greater good with content ownership strategy, which I define as focusing on the larger content ecosystem and how it can tell your story. Our college’s content team of professionals and interns is outstanding, but Thursday really drove home how many content creators exist among our students and alumni who can tell a powerful and empowering story when we share or retweet their posts under a broader content ownership strategy.

I’ll go into greater detail on content ownership strategy in a future post, but the advance tl;dr version is: Think about the stories you want to tell (based on strategy and goals), use monitoring tools and your cultivated network and think about how how your firsthand content (your field reporters) can fit together with your additional sources (what comes into your “newsroom”) to make a more comprehensive and awesome narrative.

Leave a comment

Filed under Web

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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 10.37.49 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 10.35.05 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 10.40.22 AM

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

Filed under words