Tag Archives: media relations

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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how roller derby helped me fall back in love with PR.

In some form or another, I’ve worked in public relations most of my adult life. While I love my ever-evolving day job, there’s a chance some things can feel a bit stale after a while. But I have to admit that doing publicity for Oz Roller Girls has reminded me what I enjoy about public relations.

My day job is for a college that’s also the largest employer in the county, so what we do is news whether we want it to be or not. And sometimes decisions involve what not to write about under the If We Cover That Bake Sale, We Have To Cover All Bake Sales theory.

But with the Oz Roller Girls, it’s like a budding relationship where everything is fresh and new. We’re starting, essentially, from square one, so seeing Oz news releases and photos in the media is exciting again, and watching folks on the team post Facebook links to our coverage gives a sense of accomplishment, of being part of a group that deeply appreciates it.

Since we recently launched the @OzRollerGirls Twitter account, I find myself going back to basics. My regular Twitter account having 1,300+ followers and the college account having 900+ followers has spoiled me. With the derby account, I have to remember how to build an audience again through interesting content and engagement.

It’s also refreshing to write about a new subject and be able to start a campaign from scratch. If I have an idea for a good story, I can just dive into it. The Media Committee also has awesome volunteers ready to help at any time. The whole team is so cooperative and supportive when I need something from them, and the enthusiasm for the sport is contagious and fulfilling.

The Oz Roller Girls are still an underdog in the media game. We’re a novelty act to some, hard to categorize to others, unproven to others still. But as we build toward our home debut on April 23, you can feel a kind of momentum from dozens of skaters and volunteers all believing in something and working together. When they see publicity come through, it’s just further encouragement. And being a part of all that, of seeing everything come together and enjoying every little success, makes me fall in love with public relations all over again.

Postscript: My advice: If you ever feel a little stagnated, finding a volunteer outlet can prove refreshing. You don’t have to get as far in as I have, but just meeting new people and gaining new perspective can really be a boost.

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storm chasing and social media.

Let’s say you’re trying to show that your college lets students learn outside the classroom. You have a summer course where students pursue extreme weather across the Midwest. Wouldn’t keeping current and future students, friends and family, and the media updated via social media be a good idea?

In the case of the SUNY Oswego Storm Chasers course, this is indeed happening. The @oswegochasers Twitter account not only keeps followers updated on the team’s location, but readers can see some pretty cool photos as well as links to AccuWeather videos and AccuChaser Shawn Smith’s relayed blog updates. Talk about bringing the experience to the reader!

Fig. A: Storm cell reflected, courtesy of @oswegochasers.

Fig. A: Storm cell reflected, courtesy of @oswegochasers.

In theory, we could take it a step further. Imagine they tweet that they’re pulling into, say, Kansas City to chase storms around the region the next day. With a little time, planning and luck, couldn’t we take a shot via email (a long shot, perhaps) at interesting the Kansas City Star and/or local TV news operations at WADF, KCTV, KMBC and KSHB in doing a story on these out-of-town social-media-using storm chasers? (Though, sad to say, some editors may be more interested in the Twitter angle than the weather one.) Between having the cell number for the lead meteorologist plus compelling photos and access to AccuWeather’s ride-along videos, the basic elements are there for an interesting story.

If nothing else, it shows one more way social media can bring interesting experiences to the world, the silver lining for weather enthusiasts out pursuing the darkest clouds they can find.

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of truths and trends.

Working in media relations means often hearing from reporters working on trend pieces. It’s nice when it’s a positive piece following established data, like on Friday when I put a local TV news outlet in touch with a blogger/women’s hockey player for a great story on transfers from private to public colleges.

While that story was a good example of a reporter putting a face on a verifiable economy-related trend (we’ve seen a nearly 27 percent increase in transfer apps, many from privates), sometimes reporters are not looking for examples as much as they are validation of a dubious theory.

I had a front-row view of a predetermined piece a few years back. A reporter from the Times-Herald-Record, a downstate paper, called in the wake of 9/11, trying to confirm the conventional wisdom that students were staying closer to home that year. Except … they weren’t. She asked for measure after measure, and in all of them the number of applicants from New York City, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley were up. Finally she found one measure involving one geographic group that was down 0.1 percent. The resulting story said that applications to our college were down from downstate, and cherry-picked one quote of mine several miles out of context. Sadly I’ve dealt with such lazy reporting more times than I can count, so who knows how many other false stories banked on conventional wisdom have warped views of reality?

We are all cheated when, instead of approaching a story with an open mind — wondering if conventional wisdom is right or wrong — reporters, perhaps feeling pressed for time, only confirm dubious thinking. Maybe they’re handed an angle they feel compelled to reinforce — instead of question, which is the true job of a journalist.

We can wring our hands over the state of journalism from an economic or technological model, but we can’t forget qualitative issues. We need to remember that integrity and open-mindedness are two tenets that define the field … and better serve society. If we don’t care about the quality of journalism, then maybe it’s not worth saving.

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social media changing newsgathering.

In the past week I noticed a few friends in journalism attempting a new type of newsgathering in the wake of the tragic plane crash near Buffalo. These unfailingly old-school journalists embraced new media, posting status messages on Facebook asking, very sensitively, if anyone knew people who may have connections with Continental Flight 3407 and who may be willing to tell their story.

I’ve spent many years on both sides of the journalism-media relations street. I’ve been an editor trying to find people connected to a tragedy, and I’ve done media relations as reporters sought people related to a sad story. The most memorable instance of the latter was on 9/11, as our campus was flooded with calls from reporters looking for someone, anyone with personal ties that could place greater context on that unthinkable event.

One of the worst journalism cliches is the sight or thought of a reporter sticking a microphone in the face of a grieving loved one to ask how they feel about a tragedy. Maybe this use of Facebook to find leads represents a kindler, gentler way to do business. My friends were working their connections but only looking for those ready and willing to speak. Those impacted by a bad situation are treated less like prey and more like partners.

It further shows how social media is changing the communication landscape. In Web 2.0, we are all a certain number of connections away from other people with whom we can establish various kinds of relationships. Moreover, it reinforces that social media continues to change the way we find, tell and share stories.

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