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Archive for November, 2010

Breaking down the “national news effort”

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The value of the ‘near miss’

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online vs. in-person classes: Not so different, after all

Friday, November 19th, 2010

UNL  students participating in a new study on online courses said they felt less connected and had a smaller sense of classroom community than those who took the same classes in person, but that didn’t keep online students from performing just as well as their in-person counterparts.

The study by UNL agronomy graduate student Robert Vavala gauged students’ perception and performance in three UNL undergraduate science courses that had both online and face-to-face class versions. It found that online students did not feel a sense of cohesion, community spirit, trust or interaction, elements that have been shown to foster effective classroom learning.

At the same time, in the portion of the survey about students’ perception of their own learning, online students reported levels equal to those reported by face-to-face students and at the end of the day, their grades were equivalent to their in-person peers.

The study  is getting some decent play, including from United Press International and its member affiliates around the country. Other online outlets have begun to pick up the work, as well.

“Previous research has shown that students who feel like they are connected to their classmates tend to enjoy their classes more and ultimately get better grades,” Vavala said. “We wanted to determine if online students felt the same way about their classes that face-to-face students did and if so, whether or not that affected their grades.”

Researchers assembled the data from a survey of more than 250 students enrolled in three different entry-level science courses at a large Midwestern public university. The same instructors taught both versions of each of the courses.

Though the results may suggest that in-person classes are no more effective for student learning than online ones, Vavala said they also show that online courses could be even more effective if they could foster a culture of class cohesion, spirit, trust and interaction among students.

How does an instructor do that? Perhaps more one-on-one contact and timely feedback between the instructor and online students, according to the study. All three instructors involved in the study said they felt creating a sense of community in their classes was very important, and worked to simulate that experience for online students.

“Because online classes lack actual face-to-face contact, instructors face many challenges in creating classroom community. One of those challenges is that community might not be as important to the online student as it is to their in-person peers,” Vavala said.

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.

A surge in Chinese students at U.S. campuses: Sounds familiar.

Monday, November 15th, 2010

Lots of talk about Chinese students flocking to U.S. campuses these days. A rash of stories on the topic have come on the heels of an annual report by the Institute of International Education showing how many international students are studying at American institutions. A few samplers:

China props up foreign students’ numbers in U.S., says the Chronicle of Higher Education. “The rapid increase in the number of Chinese students, however, obscures the slowing overall growth in the number of foreign students at American colleges. International enrollments rose only 3 percent, to 690,923, in 2009-10, while first-time-student figures expanded even more anemically, by just 1 percent.”

The China education boom hits U.S. campuses, says the New York Times. “While China’s students have long filled American graduate schools, its undergraduates now represent the fastest-growing group of international students. In 2008-09, more than 26,000 were studying in the United States, up from 8,000 eight years earlier.”

Record number of Chinese students flock to U.S. colleges, says the Christian Science Monitor. “California, New York and Texas still host the largest number of foreign students, but several Midwestern states — Illinois, Ohio and Indiana — all made a big effort to reach out to foreign students and saw sizeable increases.”

Of course, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is also in that mix of Midwestern schools. And, actually, we were well ahead of the curve on this trend story, as well — if you may recall, UNL was the subject of a front-page cover story by USA TODAY last December that highlighted this latest movement.

For two days last October, we hosted reporter Mary Beth Marklein, who in turn wrote at length about UNL’s efforts over the past several years to attract and retain Chinese students. Specifically, Marklein examined UNL’s partnerships and shared-degree programs with Chinese universities. She also looked at UNL’s marketing efforts to Chinese students and their parents, which cited campus safety ratings and a U.S. News & World Report article showing UNL is the most popular public university in the United States based on its yield rate. She also delved into UNL’s Nebraska Writing Center efforts to help ease Chinese students’ transitions to campus, particularly in the amount of reading and writing that needed to be done. And she noted Chancellor Perlman’s thoughts on the impact a growing Chinese population can have on the university’s bottom line. To top it off, Marklein wrote a sidebar about Confucius Institutes and quoted Dr. David Lou extensively.

It’s another example of UNL not only being relevant on the national scene, but also out in front of a national trend in higher education.

Research: Be well, do good work … and go further in school

Friday, November 12th, 2010

Turns out the high school guidance counselor was right. Students who have high aspirations and put thought into their futures during their high school years tend to reach higher levels of educational attainment, according to a UNL study. And what’s a significant factor in those goals and expectations taking shape in the first place? It matters if teens are involved in extracurricular activities — whether it’s football, fine arts or French club.

The research, by Sarah Beal and Lisa Crockett (psychology), surveyed hundreds of high school students about their educational and career goals and expectations while also examining the types of activities they took part in during high school. Then researchers studied how each activity, from extracurricular clubs and teams to part-time jobs to volunteering, was related to students’ thoughts about their futures.

They found that students’ educational plans and their occupational goals and expectations were related to and predicted the level of education they ultimately attained. Also, extracurricular activities were related to students’ educational goals and career expectations — and vice-versa. That unique relationship, the study says, played a role in predicting how far teens eventually went with their educations.

The longitudinal study, which tracked students from adolescence into adulthood, appeared in a recent edition of the journal Developmental Psychology. It showed that what adolescents think about their futures is relevant for their development through adulthood, and suggests that they can use their projections about the future to adapt their behavior in ways that promote achievement later in life.

“There is a longstanding notion that what adolescents do sets the stage for their adult lives,” said Crockett, a professor of psychology. “Our results support this idea and indicate that what they think matters as well.”

What appears to happen, Crockett said, is that teenagers’ plans influence their behaviors, especially extracurricular activities, which in turn influence their educational attainment: ”When you consider how important educational attainment is for adult life — its relation to occupational attainment, financial security, health, and other aspects of well being — it appears that the steps adolescents take have important implications for their future success,” she said.

Other research indicates that factors such as gender, socioeconomic status and abilities are important, Crockett said, “but we know very little about how children begin to formulate their ideas and how these ideas change over adolescence in response to their experiences and their increasing knowledge of their skills, interests and the opportunities available to them.”

The ‘London, Paris, Rome, Lincoln’ pitch

Friday, November 12th, 2010

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

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

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

Say what?”

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

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

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

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

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