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10 dead-honest reasons reporters delete your emails

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Pitches not landing? Take a glance at these 10 Dead-Honest Reasons Reporters Delete Your Emails. Yeah, it’s targeted toward startup companies, but vast majorities of this excellent list can be applied to any type of public relations — including higher education.

I recently sat in on a HARO conference call on pitching syndicated TV programs; many of the producers on the call echoed these same concerns — people not respecting their time, people sending vague or unoriginal pitches, people being way too pushy about their pitch by relentlessly following up, and so on. A lot of the call — and really, much of this 10-point list — is kind of Common Sense 101. But stuff like this is always worth a reminder once in a while.

Using social media to pitch your stories

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

So I’m giving a presentation in a couple of months in Washington, D.C., called “Achieving Authenticity and Publicity in the Twitter Age.” Sounds fancy, eh? Basically, what I hope to get across is this: Standing out and getting noticed on online social networks — and therefore getting publicity for your institution — doesn’t happen easily. It is, for want of a better term, a process. That process is long and involves talking, listening, interacting, being engaged and having staying power on various social platforms. And this process is important, because these are the online spaces where reporters and editors are now inhabiting — places like Twitter and Facebook have become the new public square.

So, here are a few pieces of advice for those wanting to use social media to gain publicity for your institution (or client) that will likely find their way into the presentation.

1. Educate yourself. Social media has made the world one big network, so in many ways it’s never been easier to connect with a journalist — and just as important, to see what they’re doing. Typically I like to pitch reporters with whom I already have a relationship, but I’m always looking to forge new ones. Obviously, relationship-building is not something that you can do with a snap of your fingers. So before I send a pitch to a writer or editor I don’t know particularly well, I’ll try to find out as much about them as I can. A good place to start is their bio page on their personal or media site. In many cases, those pages also have compilations of the writer’s last 10 or so stories, which can help you to zero in even more on what type of news they’re interested in.

Next, I put Google through its paces. Most likely the top hits coming back will be for the journalist’s Facebook and Twitter pages, maybe even their LinkedIn account. These are great ways to educate yourself on your target’s likes and dislikes — maybe they’re fans of the Boston Red Sox or Top Gear, enjoy gardening, ride their bike to work, or love mystery novels, soccer and country music. These are all possible entry points that can be keyed upon in a potential pitch.

Also: By scanning through a journalist’s work history on LinkedIn, I can quickly see if we might have and old colleague or two in common. I spent 15 years as a reporter and editor working for Gannett and Lee Enterprises newspapers, and a common colleague can serve as a great entry point to get noticed (as well as a good reminder to catch up with said colleague, because undoubtedly, it’s been too long). I did this once with a high-ranking editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education after learning he and I both worked for the same editor in Gannett at one time or another. It definitely got his attention and helped in my quest to land my pitch.

2. Interact. The tactics described above would be creepy and stalkerish if not for this part. Get in there, take advantage of the information you’ve just gained and the social-media access you have with journalists, and be an active part of the networked journalism society. Retweet journalists’ tweets. Reply to their tweets. Maybe even send a brief personal message to them on Facebook, complimenting them on a particular piece of recent work along with a friend request. That way, when you’ve got a story they might be interested in down the line, you’re not hitting them out of the blue, but as a Facebook friend and Twitter follower. Journalists will appreciate it, and you’ll find your pitch-to-placement ratio start to tighten, as well.

Then, when a journalist writes a story with one of your sources in it, tout it — and the journalist — loudly and proudly on those same social media channels. And then the cycle begins anew.

3. Monitor, monitor, monitor … and then pounce. Some of my successes using social media haven’t come from a classic “pitch” at all. I’ve just sat back and watched some of my favorite reporters on Twitter and ascertained what they were working on, then matched that information up with what sources on my campus I might be able to put in front of them.

An example: When news of the new Congressional reapportionment scenario came out in late 2010, I noticed on Twitter that a reporter CNN was assembling a story on the political ramifications of the new alignment … so I quickly let him know about a UNL political scientist who studies the effect reapportionment can have on the average voter. Within the hour, my source was in’s main story. Besides hustle, the key element in that example — and all successful placements via social media — is that I was able to help the reporter, and wasn’t pitching the reporter. It’s the online equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle, but it can be done.

4. Be a real person. That is, manage your social media presence as a human being, not a brand or an institution. People connect and identify with people, not faceless monoliths. This is hard for some people, particularly those who are new to social media or who might not be of the share-everything generation that dominates most online platforms. But I’m convinced it’s absolutely essential to your long-term success. The most important thing is to stick with social media and spend time with it — you might not even realize it, but as you’re scanning and clicking and reading, you’re learning the subtle nuances between being a faceless link farm and an actual, living and breathing person with thoughts, opinions and feelings. Today’s social-media users are savvy — they can recognize a drive-by tweeter or Facebooker a mile away. So save everyone some time and energy, and just be you. Or an online facsimile of you, anyway.

There is, of course, a thin line between authenticity and noise in places like Twitter and Facebook. Staying on the right side of that line depends on what kind of audiences you’re working with and what kinds of social spaces you’re inhabiting online. If you’re trying to reach journalists, watch their online “mannerisms” and learn how to speak their language. It’s not as nebulous as it sounds, but developing this skill requires is one key thing: time.

5. Caution! OK. Just because you have a powerful new medium in which to connect with journalists and create publicity for your institution, and you’ve started to rack up some followers and notoriety among your social media circles, doesn’t mean you should regularly cold-tweet or Facebook-message journalists you don’t know to pimp your stories. Understand, too, that not all social-media platforms are the same — what may be appropriate for Twitter (more public and a little more informal) might not be cool on Facebook (more personal and one-to-one) or LinkedIn (all business and formal). Think twice before trying to fire off “traditional” press-release-based pitches to journalists on these platforms; it rarely works, and usually has a boomerang effect. In other words, use social media to connect and cultivate; use email (or — gasp — the phone!) to close the deal.

That’s the long and short of my presentation, anyway. I’m sure it’ll crystallize in the coming weeks. But for now, I’d be interested in hearing any thoughts on what I’ve missed and what else I might want to include. Don’t be shy.

A little local media love for UComm

Friday, January 14th, 2011

Hey, this was swell. The Daily Nebraskan wrote a story about the Office of University Communications’ national media efforts, noting that UNL faculty, staff and students combined for more than 150 appearances in the national media in 2010. Beyond talking to yours truly, the DN tapped economics professor Sam Allgood and educational psychology professor Ken Kiewra to discuss their appearances and dealings with national reporters.

We’re grateful for the recognition and the coverage from UNL’s student newspaper, but want to be sure to note that sometimes, the work that our amazing faculty and staff do every day isn’t always pitched from our office. We’d love to say that 100 percent of the work that ends up in the national media is because of our tireless pitching efforts. But that’s just not possible. In Prof. Allgood’s case, the national media found him. In Prof. Kiewra’s case, we worked closely with him to promote his work that was mentioned in the story.

Just worth mentioning, I gather. On average, we’re (directly or indirectly) involved in upwards of 65 percent of the placements that comprise the year-end national media list. Not a bad shooting percentage (more on how the national media strategy works in this post), given the broad amount of expertise on campus and the wide array of media outlets seeking them out. We’re looking forward to keeping that national momentum going in 2011.

If story pitches were movie scenes

Friday, December 17th, 2010

For all the talk about how social media has changed the landscape of communication, some things stay remarkably the same. It’s nearly the end of the first decade of the 21st century and the best way to successfully pitch a news reporter is still e-mail. It is, and will remain for some time, the central application in journalists’ lives. That’s the good news; the bad news is that, because e-mail remains so very, very popular with journalists, they get a ton of it. So if you’re hoping to make a media placement on your whiz-bang story idea, then the pressure’s on these days to really stand out. Here are a few ways, with a little help from some box-office friends, to give your pitch a little more staying power and to bolster your e-mail’s chances of sticking around a reporter’s inbox.

1. Think and write in headlines. It’s certainly what journalists do when presented with information or a potential story. This is where you make the best use out of your e-mail’s subject line. A simple, subject-verb headline in that space that leaves no question to what your e-mail might be about can go a long, long way toward your pitch being read. The punchier, the better. If you have trouble with forming headlines, think about Billy Pretty in “The Shipping News” explaining to Quoyle about how to grab someone’s attention with a headline:

Billy: Now, have a look. What do you see? Tell me the headline.
Quoyle: “Horizon Fills with Dark Clouds.”
Billy: No. “Imminent Storm Threatens Village.”
Quoyle: But what if no storm comes?
Billy: “Village Spared from Deadly Storm.”

2. The shorter, the better. It’s a pitch, not a news release. It’s not a full-blown treatise about the subject. You might be as excited as all get-out about the story, but you can’t expect journalists to plow through a seven-paragraph description of it. A couple of paragraphs, with an offer to share more if they’re interested, works best. Before you hit send, rake through your e-mail pitch one last time and tighten up any loose writing. Kill off needless adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and clauses. Speak in an active voice. This will hold their attention much better than a series of run-ons that lead you nowhere. Journalists are busy people, who are often easily distracted. Think of them as the Alpha dog in Up:

Alpha: Mayhaps you desire to — SQUIRREL!

3. Timing is everything. The difference between a successful pitch and failure is often the time of day, week, or year that you send it. There’s no empirical data on this, but I can tell you what my gut and a few years of experience has proven to be true. In general, pitch in the morning hours, when many journalists are setting up their schedules for the day. In general, pitch early in the week — Tuesday tends to be better than Monday, since Monday is often crowded with leftovers from the weekend (and a lot of up-and-at-’em pitches that show up first thing Monday morning). Thursday and Friday can be difficult, because many journos are filling for the weekend and aren’t able to take the time to consider new pitches. And in general, there are two very good times of the calendar year when the path to placements has a little less resistance: the “dog days” of summer and the weeks around Christmas. The former is a good time because newsrooms are hit by lots of late-summer vacations, leaving editors scratching for stories. The second is a good time because nearly everyone is out of the office, meaning sources can be hard for reporters, stockpiling evergreen stories to get their publications through the holidays, to find. Pitches that once seemed impossible with reporters who once seemed impenetrable may stand a better chance. I call it the Hans Gruber Effect:

Theo: And you better be right because this one’s going to take a miracle.
Hans Gruber: It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time of miracles. So be of good cheer.

4. Kill ‘em with kindness. I’ve mentioned before that on average, the pitch-to-hit ratio is about 10:1. That means you’re going to get to hear “No” a lot. And sometimes, that “No” will be a little more … emphatic than others. One of the first pitches I ever threw out was returned by a journalist so brittle he might have crumpled to dust if poked with a stick. He told me I was a huge waste of time and that he had absolutely no interest in reading my “trivial attempts at pushing academic propaganda.” At first I wanted to write him back in kind, but instead I replied with a brief e-mail thanking him for at least giving the story idea a quick read and providing some feedback. He actually wrote back with an apology, with a few thoughts about how to better approach him — which I duly noted. Since then, he’s been much more amenable to hearing from me. If you have trouble with this one, think of Dalton from Road House, telling his bouncers about how they were going to conduct themselves from now on:

Dalton: All you have to do is follow three simple rules. One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside. And three, be nice … if someone gets in your face … I want you to be nice. Ask him to walk. Be nice. If he won’t walk, walk him. But be nice. If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you, and you’ll both be nice. I want you to remember that it’s a job. It’s nothing personal.

5. Actually, it IS personal, so be personable. Before sending, do a little research. What does this journalist cover? Write about? Tweet about? Do in his or her spare time? Where is he/she from originally? Learn these things and find common interests with them, and personalize your pitch accordingly. Think you’re being crafty by cutting and pasting the same pitch to three dozen different reporters, and are “personalizing” them by merely changing the name of the reporter in your introduction? Yeah, um, journalists can spot that little trick a mile away, and they resent it. When writing a pitch, I envision I’m talking to a friend about it — besides helping me eliminate industry jargon and make the pitch clearer, it also connotes a sense of authenticity and care to the pitch that tells the journalist, “this is for you and only you.”

Jerry: We live in a cynical world … And we work in a business of tough competitors. You … complete me. And I just –
Dorothy: Shut up. You had me at hello.

6. You can’t afford to be wishy-washy. With e-mail pitches, you’ll likely only get one swing at the reporter. So make it count and don’t beat around the bush. Do you want them to look at some research from a faculty member? Say so, and offer to send it to them in a follow-up e-mail. Do you want them to interview said researcher? Say so, and include the researcher’s contact information. Do you have other sources they might talk to, who might not be affiliated with your institution? Say so — it’ll enhance your credibility and position you as someone who is doing more than shilling for their university. You’ll be a helpful resource that they can turn to in the future. The point is, don’t be oblique or vague. Be bold and come out with it. Like the cathartic scene in Bull Durham when Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon’s characters finally dispense with pretense:

Crash: Come on, Annie, think of something clever to say, huh? Something full of magic, religion, bulls___. Come on, dazzle me.
Annie: I want you

There you go. Keep these scenes in mind the next time you fire up your Outlook, your Gmail or your AOL with the front page of the New York Times in mind. Wait, does anyone have AOL any more? They do? OK, wow.

Breaking down the “national news effort”

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

Recently, I had a conversation with a former newspaper colleague who lives on the West Coast. He’s now head of communications at a small school in central California and wanted to pick my brain about some ways to raise his school’s national profile. Over the course of a half hour, I ended up laying out what it was that I did for the university, and identifying some of the tools that I use to get UNL national exposure. What follows is a basic summation of that discussion; all together, it forms a picture of how our national news efforts take shape.

Bottom line, my focus is to find good UNL stories (and experts) and to basically keep my head on a swivel to find the right entry points for them in the national news media. The stories come from all over the place — I don’t have one silver-bullet method to find good stories that end up resonating on a national level. Sometimes I find them, sometimes others on campus or in my office share them with me, sometimes I learn about them after a national reporter has already talked with one of our faculty members or administrators about it. Regardless, the central tenet to the job is good old fashioned news judgment — you have to know what a good story looks like, and whether it has that unique element to it that can propel it to national status.

I try to aim small and miss small. That is, I try to target a specific reporter, based on their interests, coverage history, and the likelihood that they may be interested in what I’m offering. The key element that’s needed with this approach is time — time to establish and maintain a professional relationship with the reporter, time to give them a heads-up about a news item so they can plan accordingly, and time to let them work the story on their own. If it doesn’t hit, at least I’ve made the contact, and have gotten on a writer’s radar screen, which can pay off down the road. Beyond that, it’s important to not get discouraged, because it’s way too easy to feel that way when the average pitch-to-placement ratio is 10-to-1. I have faith that more often than not, something I pitch will take hold. It’s not terribly strategic, but then again, neither is the news.

– If I miss small, I’ll often go wide. National news release platforms can help get the word out to a number of outlets quickly. Two worth considering are NewsWise and EurekAlert. Both cost to post, but I’ve gotten placements in TIME, Fox News, MSNBC, and ABC News via both services, which I’ve employed after targeted pitches didn’t pan out.

I don’t use the phone to pitch stories a whole lot. That is, unless I have a really, really good relationship with the reporter. I use e-mail, Facebook and Twitter to contact my sources. They tend to appreciate it, since those are the platforms on which they operate now — and frankly it’s how I’d rather communicate, anyway.

– When I examine the day’s national and international headlines, I try to think about them as a local city editor would. How would the local newspaper / radio station / TV stations localize an earthquake in Haiti? Kids committing suicide after being bullied? The midterm elections? The U.S. unemployment rate? And I try to craft stories and pitches around the answers to those questions. Oftentimes, I find that national reporters are looking for similar sources in the same vein as I was thinking.

I rake over the national cheat-sheets meticulously. ProfNet has been most useful for getting our sources into stories around the country. I probably use it to pick up maybe a half-dozen source placements a month. But it does take some time to wade through them all, and find the ones that UNL faculty would be good at discussing. Frankly, HARO hasn’t been as effective from my perspective. I know others have testified to its usefulness, but I’ve not had much luck with it.

I also take full advantage of Google Scholar alerts, which give me an idea of what freshly minted studies UNL faculty are just putting out into the world. There are often some pretty good research studies in that mix, some that can lead to some good coverage.

I treat our “area” AP reporters well. They hold the key to a huge news distribution network in their hands. I’ve gotten a lot of national mileage out of simply pitching stories to the local guys in the Lincoln bureau, and watching as their stories about UNL research and programming moved on the A-Wire. If I have an interesting story that I feel could use a professional local touch, I often will give our AP friends the first crack at it.

I take advantage of conferences and networking events on a national level. If you’ve got some extra funds (I know, I know) and you’re looking to raise your college or university’s profile, you might consider the College Media Conference in Washington, D.C., each June. It’s sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. It offers superb, lasting national media contacts as well as a ton of insight from communicators around the nation. (Edited to add: In fact, I’ve been asked to speak at the conference on June 29 about how to promote your university with authenticity in the age of Twitter. Come one, come all!)

There’s more to the job, but that’s a good sampling of how it comes together every day. As I always tell other UNL communicators: I can only eat what you feed me, so don’t be shy in offering up a story idea that may have national implications. Now that you see (basically) how it’s done, it hopefully has demystified the whole daunting notion of “national news” and gives you confidence to think about stories’ possibilities beyond local and regional coverage.

The value of the ‘near miss’

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

For results-oriented folks, the sometimes-abstract world of public relations can be frustrating at times. It was definitely an adjustment I had to make when coming over to the university from working in a newsroom for nearly all of my professional career. I mean, it’s my job to produce national news placements of UNL sources and stories on a regular basis. So I tend to judge myself on the number that we achieve in a week, a month, or a year. On this handy-dandy page is where we keep track of those placements and appearances; in fact, maintaining that list of stories is probably the most results-oriented facet of my job.

The problem with that singular focus, however, is that so many eventual results are out of your control. You can work hard, cross your t’s and dot your i’s, and have things carefully pointed in the right direction, when boom! – something happens on the way to the printing press that changes everything. It might be that a reporter with whom you’d been working suddenly got another assignment dropped on them, and by the time he or she gets back to your story, the window of newsworthiness has passed. Or it could be what I call “Somali Pirate Syndrome” or “Tiger Woods Syndrome” — you have a story that’s great, but it can’t get any national traction because it’s drowned out by a sudden, pervasive story that dominates the news that day or week or month. So that’s why I never celebrate a placement until it’s actually in print or on the screen — it’s too easy to run into 11th-hour problems. The range of factors in today’s fast-moving news environment is why, on average, the story-pitch-to-actual-placement ratio is about 10:1.

Over the last two years, though, I’ve come to appreciate the value of those near misses — a few of which we’ve had in the past few weeks.

First, we attracted some interest from the New York Times regarding some recent research from our psychology department. You may recall us writing about this work, which tracked high-school students’ educational attainment as it related to their hopes, expectations and their activities during adolescence. Since their work addressed how extracurricular activities, volunteerism and vocational activities were related to teenagers’ eventual educational attainment, it garnered interest from a reporter and an editor at the Times.

For about 10 days, it looked good that the work would be represented in an eventual story. But after three interviews, the Times decided that the research didn’t exactly fit the premise of their story (specifically, the UNL findings showed that volunteerism likely did not have a huge effect on a student’s goal-making and educational expectations, and thus did not have a big association with educational achievement. The newspaper was hoping to find research to support the stance that volunteerism, in fact, is positively related to going further in school). It was disappointing, especially after a promising start and the amount of time both the reporter and her editor spent with our profs — but in the end, it didn’t happen.

In another instance, The Chronicle of Higher Education was looking for an expert in disability law to discuss technology used by colleges that is not accessible to blind people. I suggested the reporter contact Steven Willborn, the former dean of the law college, who would have a unique perspective on the story since he was an expert on the topic but also a longtime administrator. The reporter was enthused about the possibility of interviewing Prof. Willborn, but — as it turned out, a conflict of interest arose because of Willborn’s status as incoming chair of the Law School Admission Council, which is subject to a major lawsuit on exactly those issues. Generously, Willborn suggested other sources from two other universities, which was helpful to the reporter.

So — two examples of near misses, and also two examples of decent takeaways. In the first, our graduate student spoke at length with a pair of folks from the Times about her work, and as a resulted started a working relationship with them early in her career. That will pay dividends farther down the road. Most importantly, she didn’t try to present her research as something it was not just to get into the pages of the newspaper, which was absolutely the right thing to do. And that, too, will pay off in terms of her reputation with the reporters. Now the Times is aware of her work and, I’m betting, will keep her in mind when on the hunt for sources about developmental psychology come around again. No placement, but a connection made.

The second case was a good example of some simply bad luck. But the best thing Prof. Willborn did was provide two additional sources in an effort to help the reporter complete his story. While we won’t be seeing our name on that Chronicle piece, his willingness to take the time to help the reporter by suggesting colleagues at other universities left the reporter with a good experience with UNL — and, most likely, he’ll be amenable in what we have to say on legal topics later on down the road.

Near misses, though less triumphant, serve the same long-term purpose as a pitch that results in a placement: They get you on the media’s radar, and they help to establish you as a reputable house of experts that can comment on and make news.

These were not exactly the results we’d hoped for, but they’re the ones we got. But we still got a lot of value out of them. It was, in the end, time well spent for all involved.

The ‘London, Paris, Rome, Lincoln’ pitch

Friday, November 12th, 2010

If you haven’t seen The Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent story on UNL’s International Arts Symposium, take a look at it here. It’s great coverage that highlights, at some length, an important pillar of the university’s mission — community engagement.

This national placement came about as a result of what I call the London, Paris, Rome, Lincoln pitch. It plays on reporters’ natural attraction to stories that are counterintuitive or surprising. In this case, it was impressive and surprising to the Chronicle writer that such big-time, world-class artists were coming to Lincoln, Neb., of all places, to conduct workshops, lectures and in-services. Here’s the lede to the story (which I admittedly quite enjoyed) :

“Be sure to come to the University of Nebraska if you want to see the Huskers facing off against some powerhouse Division 1-A pigskin foe in Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium. Be sure to get to Lincoln, too, for the latest in avant-garde dance and lectures by body-modifying French performance artists.

Say what?”

That’s classic London, Paris, Rome, Lincoln right there, folks. But I’ll admit: Of all the tricks of the trade to place a UNL story at the national level, this is the one about which I have the most divided feelings.

On one hand, it’s an enticing hook — who expects to see a famous French performance artist in a small midwestern city in the middle of the Great Plains? I’ve used this approach in the past to attract national attention to our space law program (hey, who expects to see astro and telecommunications experts in Nebraska?) and the fact that Chinese students have been flocking to UNL in increasing numbers in recent years (hey, who expects to see so many talented foreign students in Nebraska?).

But on the other hand, the pitch obliquely concedes that the state of Nebraska is what the coastal cynics say it is — a barren, culture-free, depopulated wasteland that doesn’t have anything of note to offer, except maybe some decent intercollegiate football and high fructose corn syrup. Those of us who live here, and who work to promote the state’s flagship university, know that nothing could be further from the truth, and so it can feel a bit like selling out when the occasion presents itself to frame a pitch in such a manner.

Essentially, when offering up the London, Paris, Rome, Lincoln pitch, you’re banking on the counterintuitive nature of your story being simply an entry point and nothing more, and then putting your trust in the capable hands of the reporter to take an accurate tone with his or her coverage, avoid condescending language and allow the bright spots about your school (those things you’ve known for years that make your school unique, but will be news to the rest of the country) to shine through.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Opinions may vary on this latest example from The Chronicle, depending on one’s point of view. Ultimately, I feel that any coverage is better than no coverage, and so I tend to count these as wins. Fortunately, at the national level, most reporters are skilled and professional enough that they do their homework and research before writing, so they can avoid such cliche condescension and write with a precision that protects against perpetuating any stereotypes that might damage our university’s reputation. So in most national cases, I’d like to think, London, Paris, Rome, Lincoln works out OK.

7 simple skills every campus communicator should have

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

I remember sitting down as a college sophomore for my very first interview for a newspaper internship — for the Grand Island Independent, natch — and responding to the very first question from the interviewer (“So, why are you studying journalism?”)  thusly: “Well, I like to write and I really like people.”

That day held mixed results for me. Bad news was, I didn’t get the internship. But on the bright side, I did succeed in not making my interviewer throw up all over the table after hearing that shallow, naive first response.

Why bring this up? Because in many ways, despite the narrowness of my answer, I learned over many of my years as a newspaperman that many longtime professional journalists would probably answer that question in a similar fashion, years and years into their professional careers. For years, the job was you finds the people, you talks to the nice people, you goes back and writes a nice story about the nice people. Many news reporters and content-gatherers made a living for decades on this simple job pattern.

Of course, that singular sentiment has been hammered by the breathless march of newsroom technology in recent years, and the accompanying demands upon reporters and editors to provide content on a number of different platforms — nearly all of them digital. Campus communicators are in the same boat; as more and more media outlets ramp up their digital offerings, pressure builds for university PR shops to provide quality content to local, regional and national media on multiple platforms (remember this post a few months ago about becoming a direct content provider? Yeah, that again).

For example, here’s a recent news release from my office about UNL researcher Ross Secord’s new finding, published in Nature, that could alter how climate change is viewed. In addition to a traditional narrative news release, we offer a high-resolution photo of Secord, plus audio clips of him discussing his work for use by our radio colleagues. Last, we’ve included a series of short high-definition video clips of Secord talking about his findings, plus some b-roll for our friends in the television news business, and for newspaper websites. To top it off, we did an N the Know for the UNL home page.

Basically, every communicator on campus should be thinking about how to serve multiple platforms. Do you need to be masters of every skill involving multimedia? Of course not. But every communicator should have —  or at least be aware of — these skills in our digital era of news.

1. How to write for the web. This isn’t like learning another language. It’s more about format and approach — and remembering that most web readers don’t read in a linear format as they would a book or a printed pamphlet. Their nonlinear nature requires information to be presented in short, easily scannable, quickly digestible bites. Use subheads, short declarative sentences and bullet points to transfer information effectively. For more, check out Gerry McGovern’s excellent guidelines to writing for the web.

2. How to operate a video camera and microphone properly. There are a number of do-it-yourself tutorials on this skill. It doesn’t matter if you’re using your cell phone video camera or one of these badboys — you need to understand the basic rules of composition, lighting and, most of all, sound. In the web’s short history, it’s pretty clear  that of all the things that irk users, bad audio is at or near the top.

3. How to compose and shoot a proper photograph. See No. 2. It’s great that you consider yourself a “word person,” but consumers of digital content want to use a visual medium to actually see the things you’re writing about. Don’t take offense; take a minute to learn how to shoot a decent photograph.

4. How to upload and download files from both campus and outside sources. It’s just mean to attach giant files to e-mails, which can wreak havoc on slower computers if they reach their intended target at all. At UNL, we have a number of ways to push out and receive large files. Learn how to upload and download photos, graphics, documents and other content quickly so it can be used to supplement your news release content.

5. How to post links, video and audio in Facebook. The other day a newspaper writer friend of mine complained how his wife didn’t have time to read his work in the newspaper, but she seemed to have all this free time for Facebook. To which I replied: “Sounds like you need to post links to your work on Facebook.” It’s the old Sell Umbrellas Where It’s Raining theory. To do so effectively, spend time learning how to present all of your content appropriately on the social-media platform. It’s not hard, really.

6. How to write an effective Tweet. Actually, 140 characters is plenty of space to be clever and get your message across. If you’re posting a link, be sure to use a link-shortening service like or to give yourself more room for your message. Here are a couple of examples of Tweets that pique readers’ interest and get them to click through.

The best Tweets usually read like headlines, which leads us to …

7. How to write a headline that is Search Engine Optimized. In general, cleverness should be sacrificed for clarity when it comes to SEO-effective headlines. Sure, a headline saying “ARMED AND DANGEROUS” would be fun above a story about Taylor Martinez throwing for three touchdowns in a win over Oklahoma State this weekend, but it wouldn’t mean much to Yahoo! or Google or Bing. A nice, direct, subject-verb headline like “Husker QB Martinez throws for three touchdowns in win over Oklahoma State” may lack poetry, but it’s got a lot more keywords in it and is going to play nicer with search engines. More on SEO and headlines here.

These seven skills may rise and fall in importance, depending on the nature of the news and size of your shop. Though communicators are being told they have to be a multimedia know-it-all these days, in actuality many shops have entire divisions decided to video, online, social media and other tasks to serve multiple platforms. The key thing is to familiarize yourself with the existing (and emerging) technologies used in newsgathering, and to be at the ready both in terms of skill and attitude when called on to use them.

‘Newspaper companies that will survive won’t consider themselves newspaper companies’

Friday, October 1st, 2010

Publisher Jim Moroney of the Dallas Morning News wrote an interesting memo to his staff recently that has made its way to Jim Romanesko’s blog at It’s about the future of the newspaper business … or, as he might call it, the local media business. If you have a few minutes, give it a read. It’s excellent. Brought back members of quite a few mid-decade discussions at the Lincoln Journal Star between we futurists and the eyebrow-raising skeptics.

If you’d like the Cliffs’ Notes version, here ’tis:

– Newspapers, more than any other media, play a vital watchdog role in their community. If they go away, so does watchdog journalism at any significant scale. TV, radio and non-profit operations don’t have the journalistic heft or format to do it, or do it for very long, anyways.

The newspaper companies that will survive will not consider themselves newspaper companies. They will recognize that they are local media companies, distributing content on paper, through the internet, via the mobile web, through applications and any other way technology lets consumers access news and information.

To last, local media companies have to provide something so unique, so local and so exclusive that consumers can’t get it anywhere else. This is the tricky part — “the who, what when and where are table stakes. They don’t provide a winning hand. Everyone has them; they are commodities.” The path forward is to use the scale of the newspaper’s newsroom to give news consumers perspective, interpretation, context and analysis. That will drive value, not “City Council passes budget.”

The future business model will minimize display ads. It’ll mean a more expensive print edition, smartly priced local content for desktop users, smart phone users and iPad users, and downloadable apps that are for purchase. In other words, click-through advertising can’t carry the load at the local level.

Expect more attention on mobile, and more of an effort to get it right. Newspapers whiffed badly in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it came to the web, and it (and a few other things) brought the industry to its knees. It can’t afford to swing and miss again as news consumers abandon their desktops for their smartphones. They’ve got to get it right this time.

Good stuff. I’m still leery of paywalls, but that’s only because of my singular experience at the Journal Star, where the news reporting was short on enterprise and investigative content and long on public meeting / public safety / administrative content — the commodity stuff. If local media outlets are serious and thoughtful about how they put together a paywall model for their digital content, then the so-called “interchangeable news” — wire reports, general-interest articles, etc. — will simply have to fade away, with more of the newsroom’s reporting girth focused on the unique, exclusive content that can draw paying customers.

In a media environment that continues to be pieced out and chopped up, the news operations that will be successful with a pay model will be those that adjust their coverage to fulfill niche audiences’ needs, and give them unique content that no other site can muster.

From a national news and public-relations standpoint, these scenarios are good for our institution. National reporters will be ever be looking for smarter, more nuanced, more enterprising takes on the day’s news, and looking for the one source, study, program or story that will separate his or her coverage from the “standard” stuff, and that’s where universities like UNL — and her campus full of topic experts — will be able to step in.

How ‘the press’ talks about higher education

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Here’s a very interesting paper by Kalev Leetaru, at the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois. According to the paper:

“More than 18 million documents comprising the entire run of the New York Times from 1945 to 2005 were examined for all references to United States research universities … to examine how coverage has changed over this period and the characteristics most commonly associated with the elevated national press visibility. One of the most surprising findings is the transition of the research university from a newsmaker to a news commentator.

In 1946, 53 percent of articles mentioning a research university were about that university, focusing on its research and activities. Today, just 15 percent of articles mentioning a university are about that university: the remaining 85 percent simply city high-stature faculty for soundbite commentary on current events.”

This is not surprising, actually. Easily, half of the job of the National News Editor in UNL’s office of University Communications is to place university faculty experts into the news of the day at a national level, whether that means the Gulf Oil Spill, droughts in Texas, the economy, bullying in Massachusetts, the tone of political discourse during midterm elections, back to school topics, or the latest zeitgeist-grabbing motion picture release. These are, in many ways, the drip-drip-drip that keeps UNL in the national discussion. Using a baseball metaphor, they’re like hitting singles to drive in runs one by one and accumulate a fat score on the scoreboard. And believe me, there’s nothing wrong with hitting for average. It’s how guys like Paul Molitor hung around the game for so long. Also, the increased emphasis on source placement helps explain why services like ProfNet and Help A Reporter Out have become must-sees among higher-ed communicators.

In the university PR biz, we’re hoping for a few home runs, too. In the last few years, we’ve had our share of those. But while we work hard to get such singular featuresthose kinds of stories require a great deal of uniqueness and novelty to be considered for national consideration. Pitches that result in a splash and a story about the university or one of its programs are increasingly worthy of high-fives and celebratory donuts on the conference-room table.

The study had a few other interesting findings, including:

– Since 1945, the NYT has shrunk in half, but the number of news articles referencing research universities has stayed constant, meaning as a percentage of the stories in the paper, they’ve jumped from 13 percent of all articles and 21 percent of all front page articles today.

Private universities have 63 percent greater total news mentions and 57 percent greater front page appearances than public institutions. But when limiting the analysis to just news about institutions — and leaving out soundbites — about 24 percent of public institution coverage and 29 percent of private institution coverage is about the university itself.

– Distance from New York City or other major metro areas doesn’t matter a whole lot. This is good news for us here in the Great Plains, representing a state with a population roughly the size of greater Columbus, Ohio.

– Strong graduate enrollments help. The study found a strong correlation between graduate enrollment and news volume.

– Surprise, surprise: Schools with bigger research budgets attract greater media coverage. However, the proportion of a university’s budget devoted to research doesn’t have a measurable impact on news volume.

– Most schools do a bad job of aggregating news release content from across their institution into a single place. This has been a concerted effort here at UNL, but we still have a few exceptions.

– Most discussion around research universities today happens not in the print news media, but online. Predictably, schools with large enrollments, big budgets and lots of grants and research output tend to be more visible online.

The study’s recommendations include:

– Universities must recognize that faculty also have a “media brand” that should be developed and promoted. At UNL, folks like Tim Gay, Julia McQuillan, Marvin Ammori, Mike Wagner and Wheeler Winston Dixon come to mind. These are all faculty who have snapped into current events at a moment’s notice, many times in the past at our urging.

– Instead of pouring out a constant stream of news releases on a preset schedule, universities should look for tie-ins with current events and more strongly promote these stories. Here’s one on wartime greenhouse gases and ethanol that hits on that theme.

– Universities should prepare media guides that list faculty in each topic area, available on short notice to respond to media requests. Good suggestion. UNL’s experts database is a good start. So is N The Know, which is designed for a number of different media platforms.

Lots of data, lots of food for thought. In general, I think we do a consistently solid job of following most of the best practices outlined in the study, though as with anything we do in the communications business, there is plenty of room for improvement.