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Circles, Streams, Sparks and … Incoming! Some thoughts on Google+

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

Depending on who’s doing the talking, Google+ is either made of sunshine and awesomesauce or it’s another time-consuming social-network beast to have to feed in order to keep one’s online profile up, grumble grumble grumble. Me, I’m not entirely sure what to think of it yet.

But that, of course, hasn’t stopped me from having a few thoughts about the newest social network on the web. So here.

- It combines the best elements of Facebook and Twitter (and a little bit of Tumblr). While my G+ stream looks and functions like (a better, cleaner) Facebook feed, the social arrangement on G+ is more like Twitter. My circles — those whose streams I follow — can feature G+ members who don’t know me, or those who don’t wish to follow me back. Combining a more familiar Facebook-like interface with the one-to-many format of Twitter creates an interesting environment, one that, admittedly, has me struggling a bit to find a voice. A colleague of mine said you can tell the validity of a social network by how easy it is to be funny on it. I think, so far, G+ is still looking for its sense of humor.

-It’s so hot, you can see Sparks. With Sparks, the built-in recommendation engine, I can create categories that interest me — cycling, comic books, movies, soccer — then G+ will scoop up the web’s best content and tailor-make a feed on that topic for me to dig into and share with others via my stream. It also can help find others with similar interests. To do this on Twitter, you have to guess what hashtags some opinion leaders are using. On G+, the heavy lifting is done for you, and more intelligently, it seems.

-It’s built for convenience. This goes beyond the actual interface being more intuitive than Facebook or Twitter. Consider: the new Google toolbar. This thing was built with one universal truth in mind — that it’s nearly impossible for the average person to make it through the day without using one of Google’s services, whether it’s the search engine, News, Videos, Maps, Gmail,  to see what today’s Doodle is (and let’s face it, that Alexander Calder one was just brilliant), and now, Google+.

The new navigation bar displays all notifications and allows users to share posts and update their status. That’s slick. And for those of us who like to connect with lots of different people around the country, especially those in the news media, it’s good, because …

- It’s intimate, and that’s good — at least for the time being. Google’s rollout of its new social-media platform was invitation-based, meaning you had to know someone to get on. About three weeks in, reports vary as to how many people are using G+; I’ve seen estimates anywhere from 10 million to 50 million. So the bad news is, the network is still fairly exclusive — most people’s parents and grandparents aren’t on it yet. But that’s also the good news. Minus the noise and traffic of more mature social networks, connecting is purer and easier at this point of G+’s existence. A UNL political science professor, for example, recently sat in on a Hangout with GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and had a chance to ask him some questions. On a less exciting scale, I’ve been able to connect with reporters around the country and have them Add me back — several of these reporters haven’t followed me on Twitter, so G+ is already serving as another entry point to getting out the university’s message.

- That said, G+ seems to be built for individuals, not brands. Maybe this is simply because the rest of one’s interaction with Google’s products is as an individual. Or maybe it’s because Google has encouraged organizations to stay off of G+ for the time being. Or, maybe there’s something about how anyone can Add (read: follow) anyone, a la Twitter, which is a social platform well-known to work better as an individual-to-individual platform than Facebook, which is more friendly to faceless brands. So from the outset, I’m finding G+ more valuable as an individual networking tool with journalists and opinion leaders in areas that interest me or intersect with my job promoting the university. Perhaps someday soon G+ will open up the site to those standard, push-content “link farms” that institutions and brands manage on places like Facebook and Twitter. Time will tell how that shakes out, and how those corporate and/or institutional accounts may differ from their presence on other platforms.

- Hangouts have great potential for us to get our experts face time with reporters. This feature is like Super-Skype, and we’d be crazy to not exploit it. I could easily imagine creating media availability sessions hosted by university faculty, administrators, coaches or other officials at a given time each week to discuss the topic du jour with reporters. Or, more powerfully, how about arranging a Hangout on the fly in response to the news of the day — maybe you’ve got a great source on Norway or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; Hangouts are one way to get them in front of a good number of reporters quickly and all at once.

But for now, the question is: Do people want or have time for yet another social network? Right now, I’m torn. G+ is very good, and only stands to get better and more robust, and best of all it’s right there in my Google navigation bar all day for me to click on. But, like most people, I’ve already got plenty of social-media upkeep — I guess “curation” is the popular buzzword right now — to do already, and I’m feeling the strain of being stretched a bit too thin. That’s coming from someone who is pretty adept at moving from one social-media channel to the next. As the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Jennifer Howard recently remarked after joining G+: “So I’m now supposed to G+, FB, tweet, blog, and Tumblr-ize as well as check three email accounts on a regular basis? Social networking has started to feel like being on some kind of perimeter patrol.” The worst thing that can happen is that people feel like they have to be on G+ instead of wanting to be on G+. That’s a legitimate concern here in the early days.

Part of me thinks that we’re nearing social-media burnout, and that something has to give. Maybe Twitter takes a dive, or G+ figures out a way to catch up, quickly, with Facebook’s 750 million users as it adds games and other functionality. But regardless of what happens — it’ll be fun to look back at this post in a year or two — I think it’s safe to say that Google+ has changed the social-media world in more than a few ways. Its improvements in usability, organization and privacy,in particular, will make other platforms sit up and take notice, and more than likely adopt some of those innovations. So one way or another, G+ will be part of our digital experience whether it supplants other platforms or not.

If you’re not on G+ yet, give it a shot and see what you think. There’s no truth to the rumor that when you join, the theme from The Love Boat plays. And if you need an invite, let me know. I’ve got a few still lying around.

Some takeaways from DC

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

This year I was asked to speak at the College Media Conference in Washington, D.C., about how to use social media to achieve publicity for institutions. The conference drew about 300 attendees from universities and colleges from more than 30 states and Canada. It was the 25th year for the event, and it was held in the nation’s capital for the first time.

There were several takeaways. The main lesson I (re-) learned is that despite all the hype regarding social media, there is no substitute for face time with reporters, so I’m grateful to UNL for allowing me to travel to Washington this year to present, to participate and to connect with a number of key media contacts. One of the biggest limitations of my job, and of our national media strategy as a whole, is simply geography – which is why making and maintaining solid, sincere, authentic relationships with reporters at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major media outlets is so very important for us.

In a first-day session, Cornell College’s Jamie Kelly and I discussed how being “authentic” on Twitter and Facebook can help cultivate media sources — so when the time comes to place a faculty source or a story that is important to the institution, you have an existing relationship with (and the trust of) reporters. Questions and comments ran past the allotted time and bled into the next session, so Jamie and I both took that as a good sign that people were interested in what we had to say. If you’d like to see the slides from my presentation, here you go. Hopefully it will make sense without my stirring oral commentary to accompany it.

Much of the first day was geared toward understanding the various kinds of social media, how campuses and members of the media use them and how to create a basic social media strategy. Education bloggers from the Post, The Daily Beast and Slate.com discussed the nuances of pitching bloggers vs. those in traditional media. One takeaway was that colleges and universities would do well to focus on SEO when it comes to their faculty pages. So often, national reporters and bloggers find sources simply by banging in a few keywords into Google. Also, pitching to bloggers isn’t black magic; a lot of Pitching 101 rules apply to them just as they would members of the “legacy” media. But they’re particular about certain pitching pet peeves. Example: If bloggers even get a whiff of the notion that they’re part of a mass pitch, they in particular will run away from it, and fast.

The conference focused on a range of topics, including how to attract national media attention, something I naturally spend a lot of time on. A recurring theme was that reporters dislike being marketed to – they expect news, not agenda-driven, institutional “advertorial” content, when they are pitched. We heard “It’s the story, stupid,” at least three times from different panelists. The main takeaway was that institutions should be selective with what they pitch. Don’t clog a national reporters’ email inbox with rote news releases about building plans, donations and new associate vice chancellors. Save your ammunition for when you think you can score a direct hit. An institution’s credibility is all it has, really, when dealing with media; don’t squander it on superfluous or short-sighted pitches.

Some longer-term tactics were shared, too. Ed Blaguszewski of UMass suggested focusing time and resources into launching a research star – someone young, unafraid of the media spotlight and doing unique and noteworthy work – and launch them into orbit. But that wasn’t enough, he said; schools also need modern tools for modern media environments. UMass built a small TV studio so faculty experts could be filmed discussing their work and also appear on live TV, both regionally and nationally, when the occasion presented itself.

In a subsequent session about approaching national media, a national editor for USA TODAY also discussed the value of news video and how it drives online traffic better than text. He, like many other panelists throughout the conference, encouraged colleges and universities to send basically raw – not produced or polished – footage to them so their own video editors could make an original video out of it. Makes sense; they want to build their content to fit their site and branding, and are naturally suspicious of a slickly produced video or video package done by the university.

There was a lot more, but I’ll stop there. In sum, it was good to see some old friends, to make some new acquaintances and to continue cultivating national media sources on UNL’s behalf. I’d encourage anyone in higher-ed communications who wants to get a good look at the national news landscape to attend this conference next year. It’s an invaluable experience.

Some memorable tweeps from the conference:

Timmian Massie, Marist College

Marc Long, St. Louis College of Pharmacy

Tom Snee, University of Iowa

Gia Rassier, Concordia University, Minnesota

Andrea Boyle, University of Delaware

Mark DiPietro, Gehrung Associates

Scott Faust, California State University, Monterey Bay

Amy Mengel, ReadMedia

ASAP: CMC in DC

Monday, June 27th, 2011

I’m looking forward to catching up with some old friends and getting to know some new ones at the 2011 College Media Conference in Washington, D.C., this week. If you’re registered for Wednesday’s sessions, I’ll be among the presenters in a session moderated by Wofford College’s Laura Corbin. Cornell (Iowa) College’s Jamie Kelly and I will be tackling the notion of being “authentic” on social media and how that can create publicity and media hits for the institution, as well as for faculty, staff, students and administrators. Should be fun. If you’re around, be sure to come up and say hi.

Six Twitter tools to help your news efforts

Monday, June 13th, 2011

I’ve talked a fair amount about why it’s essential to leverage social media in your institution’s national-news efforts. But I haven’t mentioned some of the best tools that I often use for maximizing my time on Twitter.

First off, I don’t use feed-managers like HootSuite or any of those other automatic-pilot services. My Twitter feed is, like my favorite grocery store, 100 percent organic. Most times that’s good, and sometimes I miss some opportunities and openings. Still, those “scheduling” services come off as inauthentic to me, and I find them to be an accident waiting to happen, like this ad in the Miami Herald the day after the Heat lost in six. But I do like to use certain Twitter tools to do my job — that is, to help track national/international news events and news cycles, to see how effective specific social-media forays are, and to scour the Twitterverse for the first signs of breaking news.

The following six sites are among my daily (and, let’s face it, several times daily) stops:

1. Twazzup: Not happy with Twitter’s famously spotty search engine? Here’s a good one that’s a good deal better and faster. This search engine can help you get an early jump on other trend-watchers and newshounds looking for the very latest word or angle on a particular topic. I’ve been using this to follow the flooding situation up and down the Missouri River this week.

2. TweetTabs: In the same vein of Twazzup, this perpetual-search site allows you to keep track of multiple topics on one slick-looking screen. I often use TweetTabs during large news events around the country or world that tend to go on for several days. It’s also great for keeping perpetual searches going that involve my university’s interests, strengths and characteristics — stuff like ‘agriculture’, ‘drought’, ‘highered’, ‘telecom’ and ‘Big Ten.’

3. Twiangulate: This is a great tool, and very relevant for someone who values their role as a social-media networker. Not only can you use it to find new tweeps to follow by analyzing who the people you know are following, you can use it to inform you about who your most influential followers are. It works as a very good reminder of who’s reading what I tweet — which often helps guide what I tweet.

4. TwitterVision: More of a visual type? This tool puts tweets on the map — literally. Good for a geographic perspective on where the tweeting activity around the world comes from. For me, it’s a reminder that like politics, the most important news is local news.

5. TweetStats.com: Here’s a handy tool to see how, when and who you’re actually tweeting amid. It can serve as a good perspective check every now and then to help guide you toward better focusing your tweets, as well. (For example: As of today, I average 10.5 tweets a day and 279 per month. I’m most prolific on Tuesdays and tweet sparingly on Sundays. And I am far and away a mid-morning tweeter, with my top hours of the day being 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.) One note: Depending on how many users are requesting stats, it may take a few minutes for TweetStats to retrieve your info. Be patient; it’s worth the wait.

6. And last but not least, t4bp — that’s Twitter For Busy People. This tool is sort of an executive summary for Twitter; it arranges tweets into blocks of time so you can see which of the people you follow have tweeted recently. If you find yourself strapped for time but still want to engage in the social space, t4bp is a great way to cut through Twitter’s linear nature and quickly get to the highlights if you need to hit and run.

Give ‘em a try — and, as always, feel free to add your own.

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 CNN.com’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.

In The Frame, The Glory

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

On Wednesday, most of the University Communications staff enjoyed a daylong workshop by the National Science Foundation about how to communicate science in a changing media landscape. I’d attended a similar gathering last February at the AAAS annual meeting in San Diego, but was interested to hear what this particular panel of expert presenters had to say to Wednesday’s captive audience of researchers from UNL (and other area colleges and universities) about how to effectively get the word out about their work.

I was also glad to hear a lot of discussion about framing from science and political journalist Chris Mooney, a commentator and author of three books including The Republican War on Science. Mooney also writes the Intersection blog for Discover Magazine, as well. In essence, his point to scientists was to think about their work as the general public would — What practical benefits can come from it? Why is it relevant in my life? Why should I care? Framing is something that, as campus communicators, we do almost as second nature when evaluating how to promote UNL research and get it into the run of play in the national conversation. But the workshop compelled researchers to walk through the steps, one by one, to come up with the distilled, thin-sliced, 20-words-or-less message about what it is their research does for the world.

Then many of them got to go live with their work, and put their newfound framing skills into action. In an afternoon session on new media, several UNL (and other) researchers were tapped as guest bloggers on Chris’ Intersection blog. Check the guest posts out:

Managing Earth Wind & Fire by computer science and engineering’s Shant Karakashian, who used an environmental and economic frame for his blog.

ANDRILL investigates climate history of Antarctica by Frank Rack, ANDRILL’s executive director. He, too, uses an environmental frame, with the world’s history of climate change as an important element in that frame.

Nanohybrid materials: small is powerful by chemistry’s Patrick Dussault. He presented his research from a practical-use angle.

Never roam alone by Keith Rodenhausen and Stefan Schoche approached their blog entry from the perspective of a trend in academia.

Twins with and without wings? by Jenn Brisson, Cassia Oliveira and Neetha NV of the School of Biological Sciences. They essentially frame their work in the form of a question.

The brain in action: windows into the mysteries of language disorders by Autum McIlraith, special education & communications disorders project coordinator. She basically framed her research as solutions-based and life-improving.

Hungry for solutions: science and feeding the world by Vicki Miller of UNL’s Office of Research and Economic Development. The frame here, again, is problem-solving.

Not bad, eh? Looks like we’ve got some budding bloggers on our hands.

Thanks to all of the NSF representatives and presenters, and to Nebraska ESPCoR for organizing the conference. It was an informative and festive time. Come back anytime.

Nebraska actually isn’t the ‘happiest’ state: Social media and the currency of trust

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

If you have even the remotest ties to the state of Nebraska, chances are that in the last week someone you know, are friends with on Facebook or who you follow on Twitter has touted a video of a Good Morning America segment about a website naming Nebraska as the “happiest state in the nation.”  The segment, which features co-hosts Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts, discusses MainStreet.com’s initial Happiness Index, a formula based on a state’s general financial health that, after all was said and done, put the Cornhusker State atop the site’s first list of states.

The buzz about Nebraska’s top ranking started, it appears, on Wednesday of last week. Since then, the video has gone viral around the state. A good number of Nebraskans — including a local TV personality and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson — joined in the celebration of the state’s lofty status:

Just judging from my own experience and a few social-media searches, the story chugged through the weekend and has kept up its steam early this week: In the last six days, no fewer than a dozen of my Facebook friends have posted links to the GMA video on Facebook. On Twitter, the #Nebraska, #UNL and #LNK (for Lincoln, Neb.) hashtags were graced with steady tweets, and then, naturally, Retweets, passing along the proclamation and containing links to the video. I even got a few e-mails at work about the happy news. It was breathtaking to watch such an affirming story spread across the state’s digital landscape … except for one small detail: We’re not No. 1.

We were, once. But that video that’s being passed around is nearly two years old. It appeared on the April 6, 2009, edition of Good Morning Americathe same day MainStreet.com announced its initial Happiness Index — which did, at that point, have the Cornhusker State in the top spot. At the time, the local media did stories on it. I recall pitching it to national media and actually had one of our economists talk with the Wall Street Journal about this novel new economic index.

In the nearly two years since, MainStreet.com has occasionally updated its Happiness Index rankings, and Nebraska has been at or near the top in all of them. But, as luck would have it, MainStreet.com’s most recent Happiness Index has Nebraska at No. 2, behind our neighbor to the west, Wyoming. Which now not only makes the current wave of proclamations that Nebraska is the “happiest” state outdated, but also inaccurate.

It’s interesting that this story has had such social-media virility in the last week. The page everyone is linking to is clearly date-stamped “April 6, 2009,” right below the ABC video player:

Also, for anyone familiar with GMA, the second clear tipoff that this was not a new report is the presence of Diane Sawyer, who has been gone from Good Morning America for more than a year. Yet, the idea that this is somehow a new story, that Nebraska has just been named the “happiest state,” has enjoyed — and is still enjoying as I write this — exceptional viral movement in Nebraskans’ social-media circles.

So, what does this say? A couple of things, I figure. First, it shows how casual of a medium social media can be. It’s a fair bet that many people who eagerly hit “Share” on Facebook or “Retweet” on Twitter so they could pass it along to their followers weren’t paying very close attention — or probably didn’t even watch the video. Since it takes just a few seconds to click “Share” or “Retweet,”  many probably just took it at face value and forwarded it along. On the flip side, this also shows how limited social media’s tools are in trying to debunk false information: Attempting to put the genie back in the bottle or to try to counter the current wave of misinformation would be futile. Because it’s so easy to just click and send along, this story quickly multiplied to the point where it was everywhere.

This casual attitude about information is a byproduct of the most obvious, yet most powerful element of social media: Trust. Whether they realize it or not, people put an amazing amount of trust in the people who make up their social networks. They trust them on what movies to see, what books to read, what TV shows with which to waste their time. In some tightly-knit circles, they even trust them with their politics, matters of religion and other more complicated facets of life. And, as this recent event shows, they clearly trust their networks with the accuracy and currency of their news. Why should there even be a question about accuracy or currency if I got it from my favorite aunt, who I know is a pretty smart cookie, much less if a United States Senator is also saying it? And on it went.

This story, about a website’s arbitrary rankings, is really pretty harmless, so it’s nothing to get too worked up about. But not all news stories are as benign in nature. And that’s both intriguing and a little bit scary. Much has been made of the democratization of information and the decline of “traditional” media in the advent of the web and social media. By and large, that’s been a good thing — it’s opened up new outlets and perspectives and forced “traditional” media to modernize and adapt to the fast-moving digital landscape. But (and I’m not trying to sound too much like Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben here) with that power does come some responsibility to think more critically about the information flowing across your screen or your smartphone.

Hey, signing up for Facebook or Twitter doesn’t mean you have to suddenly wear a fedora with a “PRESS” card in the hatband, but we’d all do well to not simply take information at face value, to scrutinize the sources of our information and to conduct a modest amount of due diligence before perpetuating the information. At some point, doing so will have deeper consequences. Or prevent deeper consequences, which is just as important.

In a world where everyone has their own digital printing press and can crank it into action with a click of a mouse, a little extra scrutiny can make a lot of difference. You’ll truly earn your followers’ trust, and that will make everyone happy.

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.

How to make (media) friends and influence people

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I had an advertising student in my office the other day who was working with a real-life client on a publicity campaign as part of a journalism school class. Her working group’s media plan needed to include a national news component, so she she came by to learn what kinds of steps she might take to get stories about her client into some big-time publications.

My main message to her was to be patient, that unless her client had a patent for cold fusion or Angelina Jolie as a spokesperson, cultivating sources and building trust with members of the national media is the quickest route to getting your story pitch a second look.

Well, how do you build relationships with the media? She asked. Well, that’s a good question. After 15 years in the newspaper business, I carried a lot of built-in media relationships with me to UNL — relationships I’ve used daily in efforts to land national placements for my university. But I’m also meeting new journalists every day, and these are some basic rules of thumb that I apply when launching and maintaining new relationships:

1. Know who you’re talking to. This one sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at how many communicators and PR pros badly misfire when sending an e-mail pitch to a reporter about Subject A — only to learn that the reporter covers Subject B, and has no interest in your pitch whatsoever. Think of what a misfire says to a reporter who receives it: If this person either doesn’t know or doesn’t care what I cover — what I’m good at — why should I bother to help them? And what kind of an organization hires someone who is clueless about what I write? Your reputation is shot after one e-mail.

So, spend some time to do some research on the target of your pitch. Read the reporter’s blog, or his/her last few stories, and scan through his/her previous articles in chronological order if you can. It’ll help immensely when the time comes to pitch them a story. After learning and understanding the reporter’s preferences and predilections, you should be able to craft a fairly personalized query that will specifically cater to that writer. And, doing some research on the journalist also will give you good insight into who they are as a person (More on that in a minute).

2. Be someone besides ‘that PR hack who always wants me to write about his school.’ In other words, don’t be the nag who is always asking for something. If a recent piece of a reporter’s work strikes your fancy, feel free to send the writer a quick note expressing that you’re a fan of his or her work. Go crazy and throw in a specific example of what, in particular, you liked about their story. Be their fan. Or, be an unbiased resource for them – if you see a story that has nothing to do with your organization, but think the reporter would be interested in it, send it along. Y’know, the old adage about catching more flies with honey, and all that. Again, it sounds simple, but it works.

3. Be briefer, and be the reliefer. Reporters are busy. Don’t waste their time. Keep your e-mails short and to the point. In fact, if you’re going to just hit them with a quick how’s-it-going note, maybe follow them on Twitter and carry out those niceties there. When pitching by e-mail, be sure to go over your finished note with the “scan test” — can a reasonable reader tell what your story is about in fewer than five seconds? If so, you’ve written just about enough. Every word counts, so use short, straightforward sentences; don’t get cute or overly descriptive. And resist the urge to throw in every detail but the kitchen sink. If they’re interested, they’ll take the time to ask for more.

4. Be sure to reconnoiter once in a while. Again, being sure to interact with them when you don’t have a specific pitch casts you as more than just someone who always needs something. Follow key reporters on social media and in the news pages to see what they’re up to, and check in with them from time to time. Unfortunately, in recent years there’s been a lot of tumult in the information industry, with reoganizations, bankruptcies, buyouts and layoffs. If you hear about something like this at a media outlet where you know reporters, e-mail those folks a note to let them know you’re thinking about them and to politely ask how they’re doing. This happened earlier this summer when a national newspaper suddenly reorganized its newsroom, resulting in nearly 40 positions being eliminated; I floated a handful of e-mails to the staffers with whom I’d worked in the past, asking if they were OK and if there was anything I could do for them if not — and got back grateful notes saying they were glad I was thinking of them.

5. As Joe Clark said in Lean On Me, “Move expeditiously.” If you reach the point in a relationship with a media member where they’re looking for your help, remember: The breakneck speed in which they’re working is often, how shall we say this nicely, much faster than what occurs in a university or college PR shop. Move their request to the front of the line and help them immediately. That will solidify your reputation with national reporters that you’re someone who can help them quickly, and increases the chances that they’ll turn to you for source help on deadline.

6. Most of all, be yourself. We’re all human, after all. Once you’ve reached a level of comfortability with your media contacts, don’t be afraid to go “off topic” from time to time. I’ve had discussions with national reporters about the best Halloween candy, college football, community art fairs, and whether the Watchmen movie should’ve ever been made — none of which had anything to do with the business at hand, but helped me understand the writer much better, and vice versa.

Those are but six off the top of my head. None of these are snap-your-fingers quick; building relationships online can take months, even years to create the types of results that you hope to achieve. But, as I often say, it’s time well spent. The potential payoff — national media coverage — is great, and in the meantime, you’re able to meet and learn more about interesting and often quirky people.

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 go.unl.edu or tinyurl.com 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.