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.