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7 simple skills every campus communicator should have

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.

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