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The value of the ‘near miss’

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.

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