Tag Archives: storytelling

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.

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Goodbye Garrison Keillor: A lesson in the power of with.

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

Garrison Keillor in his natural habitat (photo from prairiehome.org).

“It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, my hometown …”

Garrison Keillor said those words one last time on Saturday night before signing off of “A Prairie Home Companion,” a show he has helmed in some form or another since more than 40 years ago. The show didn’t just unexpectedly gather multimillions of fans from coast to coast but helped reinvigorate a whole medium. In the words of colleague Scott Simon on NPR, “all of us who share this sliver on the radio spectrum know we wouldn’t be in business if Garrison Keillor hadn’t made a new thing called public radio truly sing.”

So Keillor’s last show bears its share of symbolism as it stood amidst a shifting landscape. Just as Keillor passes the torch to talented young musician/composer Chris Thile, so too has the transition from an odd little local variety show to a worldwide phenomenon taken us from a cold war and national malaise and a radio medium looking to stay vital to the age of the Internet and a world where the audio medium is as hot as ever through podcasting.

Keillor himself took the occasion of the final broadcast, as he always has, to put over a younger generation of talent. The performance featured duets with five talented women: Sara Watkins (a former guest host and bandmate of Thile in Nickel Creek), Sarah Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, Heather Masse and Christine DiGiallonardo. Watkins got to sing “One Last Time,” a song on her just-released album, and joined Jarosz and O’Donovan in work they do as a trio called I’m With Her.

And “with” is probably the best preposition to explain Keillor’s appeal: He performs with his guests, house musicians and comic players, and has as much fun as anybody. He shares greetings from the studio audience with the world. He brings us with him into the fictional small town of Lake Woebegon, until we can smell the coffee in the Chatterbox Cafe and see the aisles of Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. And he laughs with his characters and the world, not at them.

Keillor and this show have a special relationship with our family, as we would gather to listen and laugh and love the music. It almost seems outmoded now, as today parents and kids all have their own smartphones and tablets and TVs and their own fragmented entertainment, yet there we were, our mom and various combinations of three sons, brought together by this tall, awkward stranger and his friends via the radio airwaves.

We also grew up in a small town that could have been, for all intents and purposes, Lake Woebegon. Weedsport, N.Y., a town of less than 2,000, is bigger than Keillor’s imaginary Minnesota hometown, but it had everything else — a rural setting, an ongoing struggle for identity and families who knew one another for generations. His stories felt like they could have happened on our streets .. or on the streets of many a small town. Popular culture highlighting a small town in a humbly celebratory light was rare then (and still is), so us small-town folks take a certain pride; Keillor is, in a way, one of our own who made good.

Many of these blog things talk about what we can learn from somebody’s success, and true to form, here are three things Keillor teaches us:

1. The power of storytelling. Those of us who work in communications speak of (and sometimes present on) the power of storytelling, and Keillor was a master of craft, character and consistency. Creating Lake Wobegon from scratch is an amazing accomplishment — so just think of the storytelling we can do with real people! Radio might be the best pure modern manifestation for storytelling. We hear words and inflections and fill in the blanks with the theater of our minds. No different than tales told over fires to friends about legends of old, or to our tucked-in children with powerful, positive lessons. Podcasting is simply radio on demand, and “Serial” becoming one of the biggest recent phenomena in any medium shows the audio storytelling format remains as potent as ever.

2. Generosity. His cohorts are not as famous as Keillor, but that’s not because he tries to upstage them. Quite the opposite. In his final show, Keillor made sure to give particular spotlight to longtime companions like versatile voice actor Tim Russell and sound-effects maestro Fred Newman. He gave pianist and musical director Richard Dworsky his own shine, and has always been the #1 fan of his house band in whatever combination they are (Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band remains my favorite). He let the voices of the aforementioned five talented women take up nearly as much time in his farewell show as his own familiar baritone.

3. Community. Long before Facebook or email or the Internet, Keillor created a community all his own. And I’m not even talking about Lake Wobegon — he created a very real community with fans everywhere who could fall into warm discussion of the show, their favorite sketches, the most memorable songs. Moreover, his stories were about universal themes — love and loss, striving for acceptance, family relations and wanting to do better. The community he created formed a rising tide that helped lift then-fledgling public radio into the national cultural consciousness, and NPR remains a community — virtual and otherwise — that connects people with information, with ideas and with a world beyond themselves. Not bad for a shy English major.

And so we say goodbye to Keillor and to his familiar hometown of Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average. The whole experience has been far, far above average. We are all better from the time with this imaginary place and with all of Keillor’s encouraging words.

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Bangor Police Department: an arresting social media star

Among the most awesome things about social media are the unlikely superstars, such as the Bangor Police Department Facebook page. Not only has success failed to ruin the helpful, folksy content that brings smiles to multitudes, but the page shows us key insights into how to do the right things — in social media and in life.

Started by Sgt. Tom Cotton as merely a way to help keep the community informed and safe, the Bangor Police Department page has had a few posts that drew widespread attention, big media placements and a fanbase over 100,000 (or three times the city’s size) and growing.

The latest to go viral was friendly advice to Mid-Atlantic residents not used to the large snowstorm heading their way in late January. While many heartless Northeasterners chuckled at, smirked toward or derided the misfortune of the region, BPD extended heartwarming and humorous tips on how to whether the storms. Then they added:

Most of all, take care of each other. Be nice and invite neighbors to hole up at one location. Hide expensive things, but help them. (that’s the cop talking).

You will be fine. We drink lots of coffee and complain when we get hit like this storm. It works ok. It makes us grouchy but that’s why you come here in the summer. To hear stories from grumpy Mainers who sell lobster traps. Now, you will have some of your own to share with us when you get back.

Be safe and well and if you have any Cap’n Crunch left after the storm. It keeps very well. Bring it up this summer.

I found that rather beautiful, really: Advice, encouragement, a reminder we’re all humans who are all in this together. Cotton — who refers to himself as TC — quite simply nailed everything that makes an awesome post. Some would complain it’s too long, doesn’t feature eye-catching photos, isn’t posted at what social media gurus would say is the ideal time. None of these matter more than having a good story and a kind heart.

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Handy life advice, whether you live in Bangor or not.

In a world of self-puffing #humblebrags and narcissists who show false humility by pinning #blessed at the end of their boasts, BPD’s posts, even the ones acknowledging the size of their audiences, bear a beautiful bemused befuddlement at it all.

TC put it well in writing how awed and thankful they were at the huge reaction to their storm advice post:

With no knowledge of social media and apparently breaking most every rule, we have had a really good run on FB. I think it’s because people want to find out what police officers are actually thinking and doing rather than depending on everyone else to tell them. Maybe that is too simple an explanation but no one has ever confused me with with a genius. No reason to change hearts and minds now.

In addition to the above, a few key points related to social media come to mind.

Be yourself. Authenticity is the key to social media, and you can easily hear a friendly veteran officer offering advice or an interesting yarn in each post. TC pokes gentle fun at his fellow officers, makes corny jokes and celebrates the spirit of local kids. You expect that if you visited the station, you’d get the exact same tone and warmth.

Be awesome. Despite his humility, TC is a master storyteller relating everything from the human condition to the quirks of his town. He tells uplifting stories of simple but kind deeds like when Officer Dustin Dow asked an elderly woman they were checking on if there’s anything they could do, and she asked him to cook an egg. Which, of course, he did. And then there’s the even more unlikely celebrity, the wooden Duck of Justice.

Keep your audience in mind. BPD still posts safety tips, photos asking the public to help with an investigation, visits to local schools and other homespun advice, but it also celebrates everyday users far and near. After the winter storm/Cap’n Crunch advice, they posted fan-sent photos from readers as far away as Maryland and Virginia — all in the spirit of fun and community. (If Cap’n Crunch isn’t working on an endorsement deal yet, they should be.)

Don’t overdo it. TC doesn’t pour every off-topic idea or meme or thought onto Facebook; the updates come across just enough to always feel fresh and enjoyable. The department doesn’t try to replicate their experience on their Twitter account, and thank goodness it doesn’t autovomit every Facebook post onto Twitter.

Passion and purpose are key. When I hire interns, the things I look for more than anything are passion and a willingness to help others. TC’s passion comes coated in droll Maine wryness, but it’s clear he really cares about what he does and the people he and the man and women of the department serve.

TC finishes posts with some variation on “The men and women of the Bangor Police Department will be here.” It’s good to know that they are there for their community as well as on Facebook to make the world a brighter place.

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Celebrate your unsung heroes! They are campus treasures.

loisThey don’t appear in admissions materials. They aren’t generally the subject of news releases. They’re not mentioned at orientation. Yet they may be the people your students remember most and love the best.

Your unsung heroes are a huge part of your culture, even if you don’t see them in committee meetings and special luncheons. We recently learned, quite pleasantly really, that one of the biggest “stars” to our students and alumni is Lois Terminella, who has brightened the day — in ways large and small — for decades of students at Lakeside Dining Center.

My colleague Jeff Rea recently interviewed Lois for our Spotlight feature in our Campus Update newsletter. Posting to social media was a no-brainer, but we never imagined the explosion of love that followed … 81 comments, almost all of them adoring, with 674 likes and 168 shares.

Posting a link on Twitter yielded an immense (for us, anyway) 54 retweets and 56 favorites. Click the link in the second paragraph above and you’ll find more wonderful comments on the Campus Update story.

Lois, quite simply, is a gem and the love via social media shows how special she is to the SUNY Oswego family.

A gentleman by the name of Peter Fland added this lovely comment on Facebook about another unsung hero beloved by alumni:

Every generation has their Lois. At Waterbury and Scales in the early 60s Louise the cleaning lady was one of ours. Everyone loved her to the point that she was featured on our float in one of the parades. She did many things, but the funniest of all was when she would push into the bathrooms and say “Good Morning Darlins – Are ya decent” – after she was in. One day I was late for a presentation and struggling to iron a shirt. She pushed me away, told me to get my shower, and finished my shirt. I do not know how she knew I was pressed for time, but she did. 50 years later I remember her fondly. Three cheers and a toast to all the of these wonderful people. Congratulations to Lois and all like her. They will always have a piece of our hearts.

Lois and Louise are exceptional, to be sure, but every campus has its unsung heroes that may fly under the radar of many but present some of the fondest memories to your generations of students.

Find those unsung heroes. Celebrate them. Share their stories. You might be amazed by the impact they’ve had … and your students and alumni will have a chance to show their love to those who very much deserve it.

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Anatomy of a (very) successful student blog post

krissypostA funny thing happened recently when one of student blogs unexpectedly exploded and became our most popular ever … by a very large margin. When that happens, it’s worth taking stock of some reasons.

University in Australia vs. College in the States by Krissy O’Farrell, a student visiting from Down Under, was well-written and engaging, but many of our students craft well-written and engaging posts. But it became our first student blog entry to net more than 1,000 visits in a single day (1,009, to be exact) and brought record traffic to the blog overall.

Most visits (884) came from Facebook, where we posted it mid-morning on a Monday. The Facebook post had a fairly modest 117 likes and 15 shares — but also many more comments than usual, many from alumni, some from others who studied abroad. But looking at the other end was more impressive in that this post was shared to Facebook via WordPress 191 times.

(Aside: We don’t post every student blog entry on Facebook; it’s more a “best of” or “greatest hits” in that if a blog entry shows up on our Facebook page, audiences are guaranteed a good read. I know some colleges and organizations hook up feeds that vomit every news item, sports story and/or blog entry onto Facebook, but this serves nobody. It discounts the value of every post in the eyes of your reader … and to Facebook. Many posts with few clicks mean your page’s Facebook EdgeRank drops, meaning less people will see your individual posts. By autofeeding, you don’t benefit your content or your reader, you merely create a new corollary to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s Spiral of Silence. But I digress …)

Krissy’s posts have done well before. Her debut article, which we also put on Facebook, intriguingly titled From 104 degrees, to 3.2 degrees in a day (chronicling her journey from Australian summer to Oswego winter) did not receive that much traffic in one day but ultimately has been shared more via WordPress (217 times on Facebook). So we know her blogs catch attention.

But what about this specific blog entry may show us what can work more regularly? A few things I’ve noticed:

  • A strong headline. In a world of linkbait headlines that devalue this importance of this, a strong headline that gets your attention by letting you know what’s coming and making you interested really helps. Both the aforementioned headlines by Krissy get your attention and pique your interest for what’s to follow. Which in this case is …
  • An intriguing central question. How do universities in Australia compare with colleges in America? If that doesn’t interest you, well, you’re just not a curious person. It certainly made a lot of our Facebook fans want to click … and that so many shared it from the end of the article shows they read the whole thing and thought it worth sharing with others.
  • A unique point of view. The primary target market for our blogs are prospective students. To future freshmen, wherever they come from, college is a strange and fascinating new world. An exchange student from Australia is less different from them than one might expect, plus she brings an interesting angle to any current students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents reading the blog. Krissy was also our first blogger recruited from Tumblr; my associate Kelli Ariel saw her photos and posts there and thought Krissy would bring great storytelling and a compelling point of view to our student blogs. Needless to say, she was correct.
  • An inviting image. I’ll be honest: A good image for Facebook posts matters more than it probably should. An outstanding blog post with a middling image or no image won’t get read as much as if it had a good image. And an image of food? Win! As Susan Weinschenk noted in her excellent book Neuro Web Design, our old brain asks three very primitive questions when encountering images, even on the web: Can I eat it? Can I have sex with it? Can it kill me? It’s blunt, but it’s science … and explains why food imagery suffuses the web so effectively.
krissystats

Side note: Ignore the all-time stats here, because Jetpack is a recent installation that reset these stats.

I’m not saying to consider this a be-all end-all in terms of what works in student blogs. Many factors decide whether a blog or specific post gets readership or not. What I am saying is that there are some factors that may make some posts more likely to succeed. And when our students are telling great stories, they deserve many appreciative readers.

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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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#1 sunycuad takeaway: we may be excalibur, but king arthur is the story.

Slide from Georgy Cohen’s “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing” presentation.

Last week’s SUNYCUAD conference featured so many great presentations, people and lessons, but my favorite came from Georgy Cohen‘s “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing” session. Our institutions, Georgy said, are Excalibur — the sword in the stone that helps Arthur become king and a legendary ruler of Camelot. But the story is not about Excalibur, it’s about King Arthur: In other words, it’s about the successes of our students, our faculty and other members of the campus community.

And yet, how often do you see institutions get caught up in tooting their own horn, thumping their own chest and touting their own processes instead of focusing on who really matters? Too often. In most of our narratives, students are (or should be) the heroes, and the key chestnut of most good stories we should write is how the students succeed from their college experience.

As an example, if your college offers a new major, don’t focus on the process of creating the major, the committees involved and administrivia. Do focus on what it can/will do for students — the job opportunities available with this new degree, how the major will help the students grow as people, the niche this program occupies. Are there students ready to declare the major you can interview? (This is often a challenge, but worth asking.) Focus on any true newsworthy angle and the benefits … this is what most readers will find interesting.

Another key part of Georgy’s presentation that supports this is the idea that the most memorable stories involve ordinary people doing extraordinary things. If you work on a college campus, just walk out of your office and you’ll meet people like that every day. That’s one of the reasons I feel so blessed to work in higher education. Everyone from the brilliant student coming up with innovative ideas to the working mother who has overcome so much to earn that degree represents people in our midst who inspire anyone with open eyes, open minds and open hearts. So why not open our storybooks and celebrate their accomplishments?

Their successes tell the story of our institutions’ success. We may provide the tools, but they are the architects, the artists, the builders, the businesspeople, the scientists, the teachers, the entrepreneurs. They are the stories, and there are so many to be told.

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