The role of the media relations team within business and higher education institutions is not an easy one. Straddling the worlds of fast-paced news and considered academic exploration it can be tricky to match your institution’s expertise to a journalist’s needs at the right place and time.
The below scenarios are, unfortunately, all too familiar…
Perhaps… A journalist gets in touch looking for an expert voice from your faculty to provide a much needed sense of authority, thought leadership and analysis to the story they’re currently working on. It’s a golden opportunity to showcase the best of your faculty to a wider audience. However the deadline is just a few hours away.
You reach out but your faculty are busy. They cannot commit on such short notice. Maybe by next week, but not now.
And it’s an opportunity missed.
Or… An important story is dominating the global news agenda. The media are crying out for expert spokespeople to make sense of what’s happening and your institution has just the right person for the job. You might have even pre-emptively reached out to newspapers or broadcasters to put your expert forward, and you may have even received a favourable response.
But, your faculty member is cautious of the offer on the table. They do not want to comment publicly on an evolving story and have concerns about the impact that doing so may have on their work or their academic reputation.
And, regardless of your promises to the media, you have to decline.
Maybe… you’re lucky enough to have a fantastically keen professor at your institution who is very happy to engage with the media - who has taken time out of their busy day to provide comment to a journalist. Perhaps they spoke at length about their research and its findings.
Despite this, the journalist does not include the comment in their article. And you have disappointed faculty to appease.
It’s disheartening. It’s endlessly frustrating. And, unfortunately, it can hold repercussions further down the line. Once you’ve missed a couple of deadlines, or sent the “sorry we are unable to help” email a few times, those golden opportunities begin to dry up.
Perhaps other institutions begin to take up those opportunities, adding insult to injury.
If this sounds familiar, take comfort in the fact that, firstly, you are not alone. Secondly, there are ways to prevent these scenarios from happening.
Intrigued? Read on…
Last week, my colleague Peter Remon and I hosted a webinar designed to tackle specifically this problem. Joined by an audience of media relations experts from schools around the world we discussed the key hurdles that typically stand between the academic world and the experts housed within them, and the global current news agenda.
More importantly, as well as identifying hurdles, we shared our tricks and tips for overcoming them.
From our webinar – which you can watch on demand for free on our website – I’ve pulled a shortlist of some of the simplest, most effective steps you can take to help ensure a better outcome next time a journalist comes to call.
Hurdle 1: Academic research is not “Press Friendly”
Solution: Journalists do not have time to peruse academic papers in their entirety – most won’t have the necessary time to review a research summary either, especially if the clock is ticking on an editorial deadline. To stand the best chance of capturing a journalist’s attention with your faculty’s work, take the time to provide a provide them with a very brief overview of the study and, crucially, state why it’s focus and findings should be of interest to them. Don’t send them weighty PDFs or links to research journals which would require extra leg work on their part. Keep it simple.
For journalists happy to take a call, use the opportunity to talk it through with them. Those interested parties who wish to find out more will either be more encouraged to do so from the paper or to speak with your faculty member directly – which is exactly what you want!
Hurdle 2: Too much jargon
Solution: Tying into the “keep it simple” message above – there is no quicker way to lose a journalist’s interest then to bombard them with unnecessary jargon, unfamiliar terms or obscure references. Think of the audience you’re trying to appeal to before you talk or provide comments. The trick is to make your expertise accessible to as many people as possible. This does not mean dumbing down content but, instead, rephrasing and repositioning it in a way that non-academic readers can find relevance and identify with the topic at hand. After all, you wouldn’t travel to a foreign country and insist they spoke your language. And, if you did, you’d find you probably wouldn’t get very far!
Hurdle 3: Do not appreciate the benefits of media engagement
Solution: Not every member of faculty will share your passion for media relations or press coverage. In fact, many will not see the benefit at all. With their own research projects and teaching demands eating up their time, a request to write an op-ed or have an interview can be yet another thing to add to a lengthy to-do list. To help them see the potential gains it can be a good idea to showcase their colleagues’ work with the media and the impact it has had for them – both personally and professionally. By seeing what they are missing out on and seeing a positive endorsement by a colleague they may be more inclined to participate themselves.
Hurdle 4: Reluctant to make bold statements
Solution: “bold” does not need to mean “inflammatory” or “controversial”. Academics will not get far with the media by hedging their bets and sitting firmly on the fence when it comes to speculation. It is our job to reiterate the need to say something different to what has already entered public discourse in order to gain the response they desire from the media. They should be seen as thought leaders rather than adding to the noise. Their position within your institution and their work serves to support the credibility of their opinions, even if other commentators do not necessarily share their views.
Hurdle 5: Not providing context
Solution: It is not enough to simply tell a journalist that you have an expert for them to interview. You need to go further. Journalists will not necessarily be swayed by a fancy job title or position – instead what matters to them is what your expert can do to enrich their reporting. To help your faculty stand head and shoulders above the many other offers a journalist may receive when looking for an interviewee, you should take the step of providing some context. A few bullet points explaining how your faculty member could contribute to an article – their perspective and why they are well-qualified to make those points, can work wonders as it helps a journalist to understand how an interviewee might fit the narrative of their article.
Hurdle 6: Wary of speaking with journalists
Solution: Talking with journalists is not always easy – particularly for those who are more introverted. The best way to overcome this is to go in prepared. Media training should be a part of your faculty’s job so that, when media opportunities arise, the prospect of speaking to a journalist is not seen as an unknown threat. Additionally, preparing professors ahead of an interview with details about the outlet, the writer, the article the journalist is hoping to write and answering any questions they may have can go a long way into easing fears.
Hurdle: They’re too busy for short deadlines
Solution: How can you help them make the job easier? For example, if a journalist requires a written response, can they provide their comments over the phone to you and have you transcribe them? Or, would a journalist accept some voice notes? Work with the tools at your disposal to make a media request as straightforward as possible to answer. A positive experience can go a long way in encouraging your faculty to assist again in future.
And, to see what’s possible when you can get it right, you only need to see the results shared in our webinar slides – not to mention the coverage we secure for our clients and share regularly on our social media pages.
Want to find out more? We’re happy to share our ideas! Please do get in touch.
Kerry is the Head of Practice at BlueSky Education and a former BBC journalist.
Recognised in the graduate management education arena as a leading authority on communications for the industry, Kerry has more than a decade of experience in the media and public relations.