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Keeping the ‘R’ in ‘public relations’

Tuesday, August 10th, 2010

Sometimes, when we’re obsessing about how to frame a story, or how to make a story’s nut graf as strongly written as possible so it might grab the attention of media outlets around the country, we have to remind ourselves that in the end, it probably won’t matter — at least, not as much as a host of other factors. We’re not being defeatist; we’re simply acknowledging the truest fact that governs the PR business: It’s about relationships. Seems like that can get lost sometimes, during the run of play. But it’s so very, very true.

When you’re armed with good, interesting work from your faculty, those relationships can lead to big successes. The last few days have provided plenty of good examples:

– Sociologist Phil Schwadel’s recent research that found, among other things, that Gen X-ers are up to 50 percent less likely to “lose their religion” than their Baby Boomer parents. In looking at what national outlets would be interested in this study, we went back to April and remembered the good work that a reporter at Thomson Reuters Global had done with one of Schwadel’s previous studies. We reached out to the reporter once again — and promised exclusivity, as well. Within 24 hours, this resulting story on the research had circumnavigated the globe, landing in all kinds of high-profile outlets.

– Educational psychology professor Ken Kiewra has published a number of interesting studies, including a recent one on the prevalence of high-schoolers cheating. His latest work, which concludes that college undergrads study ineffectively and inefficiently on computers and other digital devices, landed in a section-front cover story in USA TODAY on Tuesday. This came about through our office’s relationship with the newspaper’s national higher-education reporter, who last October visited campus for this awesome cover story. We check in with her every now and then, even (gasp) just to say hello and with no agenda whatsoever. In May, knowing that Kiewra’s study would be released in early August, we gave the reporter a heads-up on the work. The reporter filed the study away until last month, when she was assembling back-to-school stories for this week. Without that relationship, UNL would’ve missed out on being included in USA TODAY’s wide-ranging article.

Another strong relationship — which comes from school ties — paid off with Kiewra’s study later in the day with the Washington Post writing about the research. Jenna Johnson, a former DN editor and UNL alumna and an education reporter for the Post, featured the work in her popular Campus Overload blog.

– Net neutrality is again in the national news, and UNL telecommunications law professor Marvin Ammori is right in the thick of things. In today’s New York Times, Ammori pens an op-ed asserting the government’s role and responsibility in regulating telecom countries to protect net neutrality. Ammori, who is currently a visiting scholar at Stanford’s Center for Internet & Society, splits his time between Lincoln and D.C. — where he swims in a number of media circles. His solid professional relationships with the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post and, now, the Times continue to pay huge dividends for UNL (see also my earlier post on Ammori, to get an idea of why he does so well in the national media).

– Over in the College of Engineering, Namas Chandra and a UNL research team are working on ways to better protect U.S. soldiers from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). This research, which is a years-long project, is on track to produce groundbreaking and important results that will have a direct impact on our troops. Since it’s a longer-term project, we felt it was important to pitch the story to local reporters, which would provide some local and regional exposure and also serve as a foothold for when national pitches will be in order. So we turned to old friend and dean of local reporters, Don Walton, who wrote a great piece on our engineers’ work.

In an age where search-engine optimization, social networking and sites like Digg are growing more prevalent in how reporters find their sources, it’s good to know that we can still pick up the phone or send off an “old-fashioned” e-mail to those in the media with whom we have good standing. This week, so far, has been an excellent reminder of the enduring power of maintaining those good relationships. It goes without saying that it’s good for business, but staying in touch with writers and reporters, and being able to help them explain the world around us to the masses, is also really good for the soul.

Don Draper and PR

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few days, you know that AMC’s hit show “Mad Men” has returned for its fourth season. And wouldn’t you know it, the first episode of the season was entitled “Public Relations.”

For the uninitiated (all six of you), “Mad Men” is about advertising in Manhattan in the 1960s. This season is about new beginnings, with the core of the cast having left their old firm to establish a new one, before their old haunts were bought out by McCann Erickson. So the new season starts with main protagonist Don Draper — one-fourth of the nascent Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce advertising firm — being interviewed by Advertising Age and being, for want of a better term, a bit of jerk.

Of course, that leads to a lousy article that, later in the episode, indirectly causes his fledgling firm to lose a major account. His fellow partners, particularly senior partner Bert Cooper, urge him to pitch himself to other publications — perhaps, Cooper says, to his man at the Wall Street Journal. Don’s curt response is that his work, by damn, should speak for itself. Why does he have to spend time courting hack writers for trade publications?

But by the end of the episode, he begins to see the writing on the wall. After a presentation for a nervous client goes south, he’s forced to shed the attitude that his work, and his work alone, should speak for itself. In short, Don came to the realization that reputation management was an invaluable part of his responsibilities in growing and sustaining his enterprise. So, moments after the climactic office run-in with the clients, Don stomps from the conference room and snaps to his secretary: “Get me Bert Cooper’s man at the Wall Street Journal.”

And, in a nice piece of symmetry, the episode’s final scene shows Don, humble and engaging, charming the writer from the Journal. We’re left to assume that the subsequent article would gush about the new firm. Bottom line, even the great Don Draper had to learn the value of getting some good press.

Hey, we love “Mad Men” for its style, writing and complexity alone. But we really love it when it’s making some of the same points we do right here on this blog. To wit:

Public relations = more bang for the buck. What are the benefits of public relations? Ask Don Draper. His lousy interview with Advertising Age caused at least one client, after seeing the dour piece, to pull their million-dollar account. Instead of creating a nice buzz about their agency, they got a disgusting thud.

Meanwhile, in the same episode, Don’s protege, Peggy Olson, orchestrates a stunt to get client Sugarberry Hams’ product flying off the shelves. She pays two actresses a pittance to go to a local store and pretend to fight over one of the hams. It results in a news article that gets wide play. The Sugarberry people, none the wiser, love the results. OK, OK, questionable ethics aside, here’s the larger point: A well-placed news story that puts your product in a good light is priceless.

But be honest. The Sugarberry ham example, though, shouldn’t be misconstrued to mean we think you should construct a ridiculous exaggeration of yourself or your work to present to the media. In the long run, it won’t work: In the age of savvy news reporters and readers, authenticity is the only viable route. Sure, the Sugarberry ham trick got some short-term bang for its buck. Problems still persisted with Peggy’s stunt, though — and we suspect there may be more trouble in the future from it — simply because it wasn’t honest.

Don, meanwhile, was tone-perfect during the Journal interview at the end of the hour. It was clear he truly believed in what he was saying — he was being straight-up with the reporter, and he was being true. We’re pretty sure Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will get their coveted framed article at its office entryway now.

Prepare, prepare, prepare. Here’s one instance where you should not try to be like Don. Never go into an interview cold, and always practice and hone your story. Let me say that again: Never go into an interview cold. Practice and hone your story. Our hero had to learn this the hard way … but by the time Don was sitting with the Journal reporter, he was again the suave, cool cat who is used to owning the boardroom. This is mainly because he knew the story he wanted to tell, recognized how that narrative cast his agency in a desirable light, and carried it out relentlessly in the interview. He drove the discussion instead of being reactionary and evasive.

There are a ton of tips and tricks to offer when contacted by the media, and if you or your department or college hasn’t been through a media-training session, seriously consider scheduling one. But, those tactics and skills are all are still predicated on one principle: Before you sit down with the journalist, you must work through what story it is that you wish to convey. The rest is just details.

One last thing. When it was over, we found ourselves wistfully wishing that it was still that easy to pick up the phone, call the Wall Street Journal, and BAM — get a story placed. We’ll have to work on that.

Is social media a fad?

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Um, no.

Serve it up … or get passed over

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

I’ve made this point before, and it sounds so very simple. But in light of a recent example of a national news appearance, it bears repeating: To get media exposure, you’ve got to put yourself out there.

For some, that might mean stretching one’s research to fit a current news event. Consider, for example, an economist who has written a book about the economics of immigration expanding on his work to comment more pointedly about the current situation in Arizona, which has more angles than a carpenter’s convention. Or perhaps a space-law professor giving a unique, nuanced reaction to President Obama’s recent announcement that advocated international science missions and the limitation of space junk and weapons above Earth. Neither of these examples are precisely in the faculty member’s wheelhouse, but if they’re willing to stretch to offer their knowledgeable opinion, the chances of getting national exposure instantly begin to climb.

And then, of course, there’s the web. For faculty and administrators at UNL, the easiest — and most accessible — way to put themselves out there is by blogging. And blogging. And blogging some more.

That’s what UNL political scientist Ari Kohen does. In addition to having a popular Twitter feed, Kohen hosts the weblog Running Chicken, which addresses any number of topics, from sports to academia to politics to human rights to popular culture. It’s a great mix of content that, combined with Kohen’s wisdom and festive writing style, comes off as a one-of-a-kind experience for readers.

And for media types, too. Recently at Running Chicken, Kohen put down his thoughts about a debate about whether contemporary political science is becoming irrelevant. Kohen’s blog entry was spurred by another blog entry at Foreign Policy, written by Stephen Walt, who suggests that the problem is ”the tendency of many scholars to ask smaller, less significant, and less controversial questions and to produce what he describes as ‘analyses of jewel-like precision that … generate only minor findings and arouse little interest beyond specialists.’”

At Running Chicken, Kohen disagreed a bit: “I would argue that many political scientists are engaging with such questions, but that the way in which the answers are being delivered is problematic. When we rely on advanced statistics to speak for themselves rather than explaining our findings in clear prose — or when we choose not to translate key quotations in French, German, Latin, or Greek into English — we do a disservice to our potential readers, or chase them away completely. These are choices that don’t have much to do with tenure or with controversy … and, ideally, political scientists will choose to do better.”

You know how the story goes from here: Kohen’s post came across the screen of Max Fisher of The Atlantic Monthly, who writes an excellent blog called The Atlantic Wire. And as bloggers tend to do, Fisher quoted Kohen’s thoughts on the topic and linked back to the professor’s blog, giving Running Chicken a nice new platform and certainly a host of new and first-time readers.

This is a success story for UNL, as well — and food for thought for those faculty members who wish their expertise could be tapped in relevant debates more often. You have to put yourself out there. You must weigh in on the topics of the day to which you can bring unique knowledge and wisdom. In a roundabout way, that was part of Kohen’s point regarding political science’s modern-day relevance — he  suggests academics need to improve their method and execution of communicating their findings so they remain relevant. In this humble communicator’s opinion, getting online, writing for general audiences and stepping out of the protective fold of one’s narrow research interests is a good start.

In the national-news placement game, it’s common knowledge that the more lines you have in the water, the more chances you’ll land a big one. When we have faculty members who are able and willing to maintain one of those lines, we know that the chances of them getting national exposure go up exponentially. It’s not terribly complicated, but it does take time and energy. But it’s worth it, because reporters read blogs. They read them a lot. They read them for story ideas, for source suggestions and for help framing their stories before they sit down to write. We at UNL would be negligent if we didn’t encourage and promote our faculty, administrators and staff who blog and blog well.

If you don’t follow blogs, start. Then, start one of your own. Then, keep at it. Your audience will grow — and eventually, perhaps with a little nudge, the media will find you.

News vs. microtargeting

Monday, June 21st, 2010

The central tenet of placing a UNL story nationally is having and exercising solid news judgment in everything we see come across our desks. Basically, we try to think like reporters do — they get a lot of junk, and the goal is to stand out with a story idea that has all the classic elements of news in it.

Still, on some days, “news” can be a difficult thing to define. One man’s breaking news (This just in: Utah has joined the Pac-10) is another man’s yawner (Why do I care? I’m not from Utah and don’t follow college football. I’d rather know about this). Or, it can depend on your state of mind; listen to someone’s pitch long enough, and you might actually start thinking that yeah, you might just be able to get that news release about an associate dean being appointed to a bi-state academic consortium on left-handed student achievement into the New York Times.

When evaluating research, news and other happenings coming from our colleges, faculty, students and departments, it’s our job to evaluate if they are of broad, national interest to mainstream audiences, to research and frame the story as simply and clearly as possible, and then to identify and pitch it to several targets in the national media. Clearly, if you read this blog or have kept track of our placement list here, you know that that approach has been very successful over the years. Faculty, administrators and staff have landed in national media outlets ranging from USA TODAY to CNN to the New York Times to Fox News this way.

There’s a second tenet to our national news efforts, as well. We call it microtargeting. That is, we may be presented with a story that has a few strong news elements, but only for a specific, limited audience. Key word here is audience:  For example, long after bullying faded out of the headlines of the popular press, UNL bullying expert Susan Swearer was showing up in Education Week, a publication primarily read by K-12 educators and administrators, as an expert source in continuing coverage on the subject. In 2009, Shane Farritor’s research into developing a sensor that analyzes and predicts weak spots on railways made placements in magazines about trains, several weeks and months after we got it to go coast-to-coast via The Associated Press’ national wire. You get the idea.

Blogs, too, are a great place to microtarget and only stand to become better venues for the tactic. Many blogs are tightly focused on a single subject, like a vast, interactive digital magazine rack catering to even the most obscure interests. One could work 24/7/365 on microtargeting, given the ever-evolving, ever-emerging information outlets that create niches of interest online.

But in many ways, microtargeting runs counter to a communicator’s instincts when it comes to news judgment. A key element of news judgment is discrimination; if that’s removed from the equation, then all items are created equal and everything is potentially news. You can see the conundrum.

This is all on our mind because recently, a series of events led to UNL’s Digital Commons being prominently featured in the latest edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Nearly a year ago, we were approached about perhaps finding a way to promote the Digital Commons, which at that point was among the top three in size in the United States. After some preliminary research, we decided to pass on making a concerted round of pitches because it was difficult to determine if there was a lot of news involved. In short, at the time the Digital Commons story idea didn’t pass our “first-best-only” test, and until it created news of its own, it seemed that any pitch would have come from an institutional perspective, and in looking at the media landscape at the time, it seemed there were very few entry points for such a story. So, the potential Digital Commons pitch essentially died for a lack of a second.

Then, a few months ago, we learned that The Chronicle was planning to talk with Paul Royster, who oversees the Digital Commons at UNL, as part of a story on how institutional repositories are approached at universities across the United States. The reporter, Jennifer Howard, often focuses on information technology and used our university’s digital efforts as the centerpiece of her story. It appeared on page A12 of the current edition of The Chronicle. If you have a subscription, you can read it here.

The etymology of this story — how it came to grace the Chronicle’s pages — is a good example of how microtargeting for an enterprise as large as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln just can’t be done by one person. University Libraries fashioned a short press release and sent it to a pair of library/open access organizations — the Association of Research Libraries & SPARC — which eventually reached a blogger in that professional field by the name of Dorothea Salo. From there, it caught Jennifer Howard’s eye at the Chronicle. The microtarget worked.

It’s entirely likely that this could be seen as a miss on University Communications’ part to promote UNL’s Digital Commons. We don’t really see it that way, though. This placement reflects a clear reality in our ongoing efforts to promote and educate the nation about UNL: We can’t be everywhere all the time. And, if we must make a choice between news and microtargeting, we’ll probably choose news almost every time.

We can afford to make that decision, frankly, because it’s our good fortune at UNL to work with many competent communicators across different departments, who often suggest good stories and story ideas for us to investigate. Most importantly, they also can be effective and relentless microtargeters. In this case, the single-minded persistence of our communicators at University Libraries paid off well for the university.

Congratulations are in order to them, and we’ll be sure to keep an eye on our Digital Commons’ progress as it continues to grow and thrive.

Becoming a direct content provider

Monday, June 7th, 2010

A recent study by the University of California, Davis finds that newspapers will have to (drumroll, please) change if they wish to survive. More specifically, it says newsrooms must move away from the repetitive, mechanical patterns that have driven the industry over the last century and embrace innovation, online networking and new business models. While many people think of newspapers as flexible and technology-driven, the study says, newspapers are actually more like a factory assembly line — strict, deadline-driven and trapped by archaic systems and processes. And that makes it almost impossible to innovate.

As a 15-year veteran of newspapering who left the industry in 2008, I think that last part rings especially true. When it comes to innovation, newspapers have always been several steps behind. That’s because they didn’t need to, really; they often were able to remain the staid, unchanging monoliths in their community because there were really no other viable options for local advertisers and readers. Then that pesky Internet thing took over, and the rest is history.

As has been well-documented in the last 10 years, technology has pulled the rug out from under traditional newsrooms, and many a newspaper has been forced to confront this sobering reality: An inflexible, obsolete way of doing things contributes to a flawed business model, which means less revenue, which means fewer newsgathering resources, which means newspapers become less and less relevant in today’s digital information marketplace. It’s happening all over the country. When the Houston Chronicle lays off their space beat reporter – Houston! — it’s a sign that newspapers have begun to cede their role as the authoritative collective of knowledge in their communities.

I could go on about how sad that is, waxing nostalgic and lamenting how publishers’ divestment in newsgathering resources is not a sustainable long-term (or mid- or even short-term) strategy for the newspaper industry. I could even probably come up with my suggestions for newsrooms to work to change course. But that’s been done ad nauseum, and besides, it’s really not the point of this blog.

Instead, here’s my point: As professional communicators, it’s our job to do more than just bemoan the slow, tragic decline of the once-mighty dailies, and fret about where our next clip is going to come from if there aren’t any writers to produce the clips. It’s our job to maximize our organization’s exposure in today’s rapidly changing media environment, using whatever means necessary.

And, for better or for worse, here’s what the situation is right now: The changes the media is undergoing have clearly increased our capacity to be direct content providers — and by this, I mean using the media as a vessel, not a filter, to push out our message. We do this regularly, with increasing success and reach. You can, too.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you go down this road:

Frame the story for the reporter, and take advantage of new entry points. Almost without exception in the last five years, newspaper staffs have gotten a good deal smaller. For those who have survived the cuts, life is much different than before. Reporters who once had to worry about writing just a few stories a week have now become full-time beast-feeders. They’re serving multiple audiences (print, online, mobile, social media, even broadcast) and therefore need a steady stream of content to fill their pages. Whether those pages are on newsprint, computer screens or smart phones doesn’t matter any more.

The continued expansion of multiple news platforms has changed the threshold for what constitutes news — and so you are more likely to get a kinder ear to your story ideas than you may have in the past. Can you put together a six- to seven-paragraph story in a news format on some research in your department? If so, that exact backgrounder could turn up in any number of national media outlets if you frame and pitch it correctly. Last week’s story about UNL’s research into childhood obesity found its way into the Post almost word-for-word as we sent it. The point is, reporters’ story radars are turned way up, because their current landscape requires it to be. Take advantage of that and pitch accordingly.

Maximize partnerships to get national play. From a national perspective, this is huge. We all took notice — and got a little bit worried —  in late 2008 when CNN eliminated its entire science team. Similar cuts have occurred at US News and World Report and a few other places around the country. Smartly, the National Science Foundation snapped up many of the laid-off journalists and added them to a site called LiveScience. LiveScience feeds a number of partner sites, such as USNWR, Fox News and several name-brand others. The Kiewra cheating study is another great, recent example of us flexing these partnerships to get the most exposure we could for UNL research. Again, we basically became a direct-content provider, as the basic version of our story spilled onto dozens if not hundreds of online sites and onto broadcast channels.

A hit is a hit is a hit. To become a successful direct content provider, you’ve got to be platform agnostic. That is, you have to put equal weight on an online “hit” that mentions your school’s work as you would its counterpart that shows up in the ink-and-paper outlets. The days of the “print clip” as a relevant metric are ending; it’s an outdated, incomplete measurement that only shows a slice of your news placement strategies. If a national media member with thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook or her blog writes about your story or photo or video there, that can be just as good as a print clip — and many times, even better.

Think, and act, like a journalist. This one probably goes without saying, but: If you’re pushing out your words practically verbatim through the media, be sure that you perform due diligence on your own work. Be sure it’s clearly written for general audiences, presented in Associated Press style for quick transfer onto media outlets’ pages, and — most important of all — factually accurate. It’s important to remember that journalists, though they are under constant pressure to update blogs and websites along with feeding their traditional print editions with new content, still are the final gatekeepers as to what goes onto their pages. If they trust your work, you’ll have little trouble. If they have to run a correction because you didn’t double-check a fact or two, they’ll be leery of your e-mail or news release or offered-up video the next time it graces their inbox.

It’s all lined up: The entry points are growing, along with the hunger for new content. For communicators, it’s a matter of providing timely, well-written/well-produced, relevant news that has an impact on people in profound ways. Working at a major research university, there are no shortage of such items, and so we’re well-positioned to take advantage of the current media landscape.

Maybe someday, media companies will be fully converged, will again be flush with money and will re-invest in their newsgathering resources. At that point, perhaps their appetite for new, relevant content might be abated. But in the meantime, the next time you see a story about UNL, look closely. There’s a good chance the words you read or the photos and video you see may very well have been produced in the Canfield Administration Building.