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Archive for August, 2010

Long-term research and long-term pitching plans

Thursday, August 26th, 2010

On the national news beat, it’s easy to get stuck in the mode of writing and pitching “study finds this” or “result of research suggests this” articles. Y’know, stuff that has a clear thin-slice, like “School junk food ban works, study finds” or “Research: One-in-four women ambivalent about kids.” That’s why this cool research over in the College of Engineering was quite a fun change of pace from our point of view.

Known as the Trauma Mechanics Research Initiative, the integrated, multi-level effort is aiming to protect U.S. troops from Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, by replicating their lethal blast wave in a laboratory environment. To do so, UNL engineers have built a giant “shock tube” that, when fired, emulates an IED exploding in the fields of Afghanistan or Iraq. Then, using high-tech simulation software, they study how such a blast specifically affects different parts of the human body — the head and brain (above), the bones, soft tissue and so on. It’s innovative work, and UNL is on the cutting edge of it. The result, at the end of the day, should be new and better helmets and body armor to keep our soldiers safe.

Due to the nature of the research, we’ve been treating it as a long-term pitch. It’s not producing definitive “wow” moments every day, week, or month — the progress on the project is far more nuanced than that. And that, as opposed to research that is regularly producing published work, can be a more difficult sell. You’re basically pitching the promise of the research’s results, not the results themselves, which makes it difficult for some journalists to frame quickly and succinctly.

So our chosen approach on pitching TMRI is to look at it from 30,000 feet, and move deliberately through different types of media over a period of time. For this particular project, we chose to look at local media first, then slowly work outward into any number of niche publications — and then, using that momentum, a national media outlet.

We’ve carried out two of the three steps; in early August we hosted Don Walton and Eric Gregory of the Lincoln Journal Star, who produced an excellent package on the research that landed on the front page of the newspaper’s Sunday print edition. Don’s the dean of Nebraska reporters and has a reputation that’s unmatched, so we knew he’d do a great job. Eric is a veteran news photographer who, with limited space, capably illustrated the research so audiences could visualize what was happening in the UNL lab.

With that “get” in hand, we then attracted interest from National Defense Magazine, a Virginia-based publication that is widely read on Capitol Hill and in the defense industry around the globe. We arranged telephone interviews and enlisted our photographers to get a number of photos for use in the magazine’s pages, and a story on the research is forthcoming in the publication’s October issue. We’re eager to see what treatment it receives there, and what the reaction might be from NDM’s readers. Meanwhile, we’re also targeting a number of weblogs and other national niche pubs, both online and in print, to continue to drive interest in the research. A hit here, a hit there, and we’ll undoubtedly be in a stronger position to pitch it at some point to places like the Post, the Times or any of the major news networks.

The steady, long-term approach also gives this particular research some time to make new progress. If there are, for example, research papers or big breakthroughs over the next several months or so, we’ll be sure to re-frame our pitches and rearrange our basic timetable to garner national coverage (which would be fine by us, by the way).

If not, we’ll stick to Plan A and keep moving it forward in solid increments. With a long-term pitch like this, it’s important to keep the embers hot. Ideally, you’d like to throw some accelerant on them and get things really roaring, but in the end we know the best route is stoking the embers every now and then with a timely placement here and there.

As more ground is broken by our Trauma Mechanics engineers, you should expect some smoke — but certainly, plenty of fire.

New “In The News” page

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Check it out: UNL’s new “In The News” page, which tracks national placements and appearances for University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty, administrators and staff. It’s a good upgrade from the old pages, which were getting a little long in the tooth.

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.

One person, one vote

Friday, August 6th, 2010

There’s a reason for all those Census workers who scattered about the nation earlier this year beyond being fodder for Tea Party activists as symbols of an insidious government plot to plant microchips in citizens’ skulls. Every 10 years, the United States counts noses and, then, armed with its best demographic guess, carves up the country into 435 equal pieces so it can elect members of Congress.

Reapportionment, it’s called. And for all the work it entails, isn’t really all that sexy. Unless you’re a cartographer or a gerrymanderer, it really doesn’t make the old pulse leap all that often. But UNL political scientist Mike Wagner’s work might just change that attitude.

Wagner, who focuses on media and political behavior, recently took a unique look at American voting patterns. Specifically, he zoomed in on counties around the country where map-drawers sliced up naturally formed “communities of interest” for the sake of numerical parity. Then he examined what effects such “carving” of tight-knit communities has on the electorate.

For example, think of the town of Gretna. Situated in Sarpy County, it’s practically an Omaha suburb. It gets Omaha TV stations and radio stations and is dominated circulation-wise by the Omaha World-Herald. Yet, when Gretnans vote for Congress, they don’t vote with the rest of Sarpy County. They choose between 1st District Rep. Jeff Fortenberry and whoever is fruitlessly challenging him this year. Now, if Gretnans got Lincoln TV stations and read the Lincoln Journal Star, chances are they’d know a lot more about Fortenberry and would make a more informed decision on Election Day every two years. But since they don’t … well, what happens?

That’s essentially what Wagner set out to find out from a national perspective: How do U.S. voters who happen to be in the “short end of the split” behave at the ballot box? Why do they vote the way they do? What kind of informational disadvantage do they experience on Election Day? What does that do to the strength of our representation in Congress? And what does that mean for democracy?

Turns out, quite a bit. Wagner (along with Jonathan Winburn of the University of Mississippi) found that voters who had been carved into new districts that mainly covered areas outside their home counties knew far less about their new House candidates than voters who weren’t redistricted. In fact, the redistricted voters with low levels of political knowledge were only half as likely than voters in their former home district to even be able to name their congressperson or their congressperson’s challenger in an upcoming election. Redistricted voters with high political knowledge were only two-thirds as likely as voters in their former district to name their representative.

“The fact that people living in this ’short end of the split’ are just as likely to cast a congressional ballot as anyone else, given their informational disadvantage, results in a vote about as random as buying a sealed ‘mystery’ bag of groceries — sure, they picked something, but they don’t know quite what it is until they get home,” Wagner says. “Consequently, there are real questions about the quality of representation these people are likely to receive through no fault of their own.”

A good number of places around the web and also the blogosphere are starting to pick up on the study, with a little nudging from our office. We’ve also put it in front of a number of state-based reporters in areas of the country that are expected to pick up Congressional seats next year thanks to the new Census numbers — places like Texas, Georgia, Florida, Utah, Nevada, Washington, South Carolina and Arizona. A number of reporters have shown interest in seeing the full study and expect to write something — if not soon, then as redistricting becomes more imminent.

Regardless, the work was a good reminder of the power of media markets and geography on elections, and will only grow more relevant as Wagner digs deeper into his results. We’re looking forward to it.

What your view of others says about you

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

As the old saying goes, “When you point your finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you.” Now, here’s the proof.

A new study, co-authored by Peter Harms of UNL’s College of Business Administration, shows that a person’s tendency to describe others in positive terms is an important indicator of the positivity of the person’s own personality traits and their emotional stability. On the other hand, the study finds, negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and anti-social behavior.

The study, which was published in July’s edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has been spreading steadily this week. Here are a few different versions of the story and the different approaches writers around the country (and globe) are taking on its findings.

For the record, the national media has made no references to Andy Kaufman’s take on this song yet. But we remain hopeful.