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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.

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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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SUNYCUAD ’13: More than a fairytale of New York

sunycuadspeakers

“I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true.”
— “A Fairytale of New York,” The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl

Next week’s SUNYCUAD conference — June 5 to 7 at the Hilton Long Island Huntington — features a dream lineup of headliners as well as leaders, visionaries and practitioners in various fields of higher education. Dreamers and doers, if you will.

While we don’t have The Pogues, we may have gone one better with headliner David Pogue, tech columnist for the New York Times, Nova ScienceNow host and CBS Sunday Morning contributor. He’s pretty good on a piano too. I’ve heard rave reviews about his live presentations, and with nearly 1.48 million Twitter followers, he’s clearly a well-regarded authority on technology as relates to everyday life.

Our headliners have amazing depth and breadth, also including SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, Columbia University Chief Digital Officer/CNetNews contributor Sree Sreenivasan and design firm Pentagram partner Michael Bierut. Any of the above would headline our conference any year, but this fab four, a veritable Mount Rushmore of brilliance, really supercharged the 2013 lineup.

But our breakout sessions are marvelous and will pose many hard choices for those in such fields as alumni relations, communication, development, publications, public relations, social media, web and everything in between. I’ll even have the honor of presenting with two of our talented students, Heather Casey and Alyssa Levenberg, on what they’ve done for us in video and blogging. Oh, and there’s even a clambake at the Crescent Beach Club on the north shore of Long Island.

If you can’t make it, we hope to have helpful bits posted up on the #sunycuad Twitter hashtag, and Lisa Kalner Williams of Sierra Tierra Marketing (@sierratierra) has assembled a list of Twitter feeds from conference speakers.

So much awesome in one place seems like a fairytale, but in truth it’s a fair sampling of what the minds of New York (and beyond) have to offer. We’ve dreamed big for this year’s conference, and we think the result will prove a truly great and fruitful time for all.

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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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no gurus: we are all social media students.

Perhaps no term draws greater disdain from web communication practitioners than the phrase social media guru. It’s vain, it’s pretentious, it’s arrogant … and, if you use it to describe yourself, it’s almost certainly wrong.

Social media is an ever-evolving landscape. New platforms, apps and communities appear all the time. Best practices are established, demolished and reshaped. And Facebook is bound to change everything it does at any moment. At best, we are all social media students — paying attention, comparing notes with colleagues and realizing this field requires non-stop learning.

By all means, seek out experts among those who have tried (and failed) things in social media. And seek out classmates — those traveling this field’s fascinating learning curve and studying it together. Twitter is a never-ending classroom where even the most seasoned can learn something from novices who express great ideas or insights. Even with my geosocial presentation last month at PSEWEB and later this week (!) at SUNYCUAD, I expect to learn from my audience, just as I learn by attending any presentation.

So if someone says they know everything about social media, then they know nothing about social media. But if we admit we are still learning social media, anything is possible.

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how twitter helped revitalize a conference lineup.

About three years ago, almost no one outside New York state had heard of the annual SUNYCUAD Conference. Last month, some of the top experts in their fields were celebrating, via social media, being accepted to speak at SUNYCUAD.

So what happened? In large part, Twitter. Not entirely, but the microblogging community really created much more buzz — and, moreover, real-life connections — than before.

The first SUNYCUAD conference I attended years ago featured many vendors speaking. “If you buy our service, this is what you can do,” spilled from a few sessions, and others just didn’t give much in the way of takeaways . Even though I love the organization — for development and communication professionals throughout the State University of New York system — and the event itself, the conference was watered down with too many tracks and not enough fresh speakers or ideas.

When I first joined the programming arm of this group, we already had good speakers, sure, but too many of them, and often the usual suspects over and over. So we compressed the tracks, favoring quality of speakers over quantity. But then a funny thing happened in 2009. We started live-tweeting some of our awesome speakers, and people all over North America said via Twitter: “I have no idea what SUNYCUAD is, but it sounds great!”

Last year we added a panel of top experts we termed our faculty-in-residence, starting with a panel presentation to set the conference tone. I’m proud to say that this year’s conference faculty will include Mark Greenfield, a headline-level speaker around the world and member of the SUNY family, whom I would not know well (nor have asked to speak) if not for Twitter.

With our call for presenters, and perhaps the most successful method of distribution was via Twitter … either the @SUNYCUAD account or various retweeters. Among those who applied and we selected as speakers, many were folks I wouldn’t have known without Twitter, many wouldn’t know SUNYCUAD existed if not for Twitter and some wouldn’t have applied if not for the Twitter announcement of the call for speakers.

So whenever people pooh-pooh the prospect of Twitter building brand or business, I can point to a pretty cool conference in Saratoga Springs this June as proof it works. If you can’t make it, expect to see some pretty cool live tweets!

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3 tips for dealing with a conference backchannel.

Last week’s SUNYCUAD Conference featured its most active Twitter backchannel (defined as a real-time discussion thread using a hashtag, such as #sunycuad). While the backchannel is usually constructive, often retweeting the most salient lessons, it can occasionally include questioning of speaker effectiveness. Certainly nothing at SUNYCUAD reached the level of the #heweb09 Great Keynote Meltdown, but some comments centered on consultants appearing to present infomercials, speaker suggestions deemed debatable and seemingly suspect strategy.

To their credit, one presenter who faced some mild backchannel questioning, an integrated communication consultancy, tried to engage commenters after the fact and thanked them for their suggestions. They also asked if Q-and-A was moving increasingly to the backchannel, as the phenomenon was apparently new to them, and I applaud their efforts at making it a learning experience.

The worst thing that could happen would be if Twitter backchannels discouraged helpful folks from speaking at conferences. It shouldn’t. Backchannels are much more manageable if speakers take proactive steps to engage their audiences. Some suggestions:

1. Use a backchannel buddy. When Rick Allen (@epublishmedia) and I both spoke at the HighEdWeb Regional at Vassar, he asked if I’d have his back(channel) and offered to do the same. At the start of a session, you can note someone in the room will monitor the backchannel and ask any questions posed there if people don’t want to ask directly. And just knowing the backchannel is being monitored in real time may keep people more civil in their tweets.

2. Understand your audience. This was the real problem in the #heweb09 meltdown; the speaker was imparting antiquated information and just wasn’t playing the right room. Perhaps unfairly, consultants have an inherent challenge speaking to higher ed practitioners who may view them as mercenaries who make lots of money for telling administrators things the underpaid, underappreciated peons have said already. I don’t see practitioners rip other campus practitioners on the backchannel, due to mutual respect of the day-to-day challenges. That said, presenters may want to ask organizers about the job descriptions of attendees, skill levels (is a 101 or advanced approach best?) and whether the conference has hosted similar topics. Letting attendees know in advance you’ll focus on beginner-level information could make a world of difference.

3. Provide value early and often. Give someone something useful and they’ll respect you. Period. If presenters eat up considerable time pumping up themselves and/or their company/institution at the beginning, they’re missing an opportunity. Many presenters wait until the last five minutes to get to takeaway advice, but why not instead bring out some great stories, tips, tricks or helpful advice in the first five? Making a good first impression will buy you social capital.

Moreover, speakers should not take backchannel comments personally … sometimes the audience is just restless, feeling trapped in a presentation they didn’t expect and reacting the only way they feel they can. Any criticism in any medium can become a learning opportunity, including Twitter comments, but taking steps to create a productive and positive backchannel is even better.

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