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Some takeaways from DC

This year I was asked to speak at the College Media Conference in Washington, D.C., about how to use social media to achieve publicity for institutions. The conference drew about 300 attendees from universities and colleges from more than 30 states and Canada. It was the 25th year for the event, and it was held in the nation’s capital for the first time.

There were several takeaways. The main lesson I (re-) learned is that despite all the hype regarding social media, there is no substitute for face time with reporters, so I’m grateful to UNL for allowing me to travel to Washington this year to present, to participate and to connect with a number of key media contacts. One of the biggest limitations of my job, and of our national media strategy as a whole, is simply geography – which is why making and maintaining solid, sincere, authentic relationships with reporters at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other major media outlets is so very important for us.

In a first-day session, Cornell College’s Jamie Kelly and I discussed how being “authentic” on Twitter and Facebook can help cultivate media sources — so when the time comes to place a faculty source or a story that is important to the institution, you have an existing relationship with (and the trust of) reporters. Questions and comments ran past the allotted time and bled into the next session, so Jamie and I both took that as a good sign that people were interested in what we had to say. If you’d like to see the slides from my presentation, here you go. Hopefully it will make sense without my stirring oral commentary to accompany it.

Much of the first day was geared toward understanding the various kinds of social media, how campuses and members of the media use them and how to create a basic social media strategy. Education bloggers from the Post, The Daily Beast and Slate.com discussed the nuances of pitching bloggers vs. those in traditional media. One takeaway was that colleges and universities would do well to focus on SEO when it comes to their faculty pages. So often, national reporters and bloggers find sources simply by banging in a few keywords into Google. Also, pitching to bloggers isn’t black magic; a lot of Pitching 101 rules apply to them just as they would members of the “legacy” media. But they’re particular about certain pitching pet peeves. Example: If bloggers even get a whiff of the notion that they’re part of a mass pitch, they in particular will run away from it, and fast.

The conference focused on a range of topics, including how to attract national media attention, something I naturally spend a lot of time on. A recurring theme was that reporters dislike being marketed to – they expect news, not agenda-driven, institutional “advertorial” content, when they are pitched. We heard “It’s the story, stupid,” at least three times from different panelists. The main takeaway was that institutions should be selective with what they pitch. Don’t clog a national reporters’ email inbox with rote news releases about building plans, donations and new associate vice chancellors. Save your ammunition for when you think you can score a direct hit. An institution’s credibility is all it has, really, when dealing with media; don’t squander it on superfluous or short-sighted pitches.

Some longer-term tactics were shared, too. Ed Blaguszewski of UMass suggested focusing time and resources into launching a research star – someone young, unafraid of the media spotlight and doing unique and noteworthy work – and launch them into orbit. But that wasn’t enough, he said; schools also need modern tools for modern media environments. UMass built a small TV studio so faculty experts could be filmed discussing their work and also appear on live TV, both regionally and nationally, when the occasion presented itself.

In a subsequent session about approaching national media, a national editor for USA TODAY also discussed the value of news video and how it drives online traffic better than text. He, like many other panelists throughout the conference, encouraged colleges and universities to send basically raw – not produced or polished – footage to them so their own video editors could make an original video out of it. Makes sense; they want to build their content to fit their site and branding, and are naturally suspicious of a slickly produced video or video package done by the university.

There was a lot more, but I’ll stop there. In sum, it was good to see some old friends, to make some new acquaintances and to continue cultivating national media sources on UNL’s behalf. I’d encourage anyone in higher-ed communications who wants to get a good look at the national news landscape to attend this conference next year. It’s an invaluable experience.

Some memorable tweeps from the conference:

Timmian Massie, Marist College

Marc Long, St. Louis College of Pharmacy

Tom Snee, University of Iowa

Gia Rassier, Concordia University, Minnesota

Andrea Boyle, University of Delaware

Mark DiPietro, Gehrung Associates

Scott Faust, California State University, Monterey Bay

Amy Mengel, ReadMedia

2 Responses to “Some takeaways from DC”

  1. Keith Moore says:

    Steve,

    You truly were paying close attention. Thanks for your excellent summary.

    Keith

  2. ssmith13 says:

    Thanks, Keith! It was a pleasure to be there and to meet you. Appreciate you giving me an opportunity to speak at the pre-conference.