“We want to be in the FT”…
How often have you heard this from the faculty you work with? I’d wager it’s a common demand – at least it is in our experience! Thankfully, over the years, BlueSky Education has established a pretty good track record for making those lofty ambitions a reality…
… but it’s never a guarantee.
Whilst your faculties might have fantastic, unparalleled and highly insightful research to share with the world, and whilst they may wish to use this expertise to take to a more public stage, it is notoriously tricky to engage the top tiers – especially when every one of your competitors is trying to do exactly the same thing.
And (let’s be blunt here) out of the many, many, many, pitches the journalists writing for such esteemed titles receive on a daily – even hourly – basis, there is a highly likely chance yours won’t be heard. In those instances where it is, there’s a good chance that what you’ve proposed isn’t compelling enough to trigger the response you want. More often than not your faculties will be disappointed.
So why am I telling you this? Why am I painting you such a hopeless picture that it feels like any effort to attract the top tiers should be abandoned (I actually am in some cases – but we’ll get to that later…)? Well, there are a few reasons…
- It helps to be honest. I’ve said before in earlier blogs that we at BlueSky Education pride ourselves on being up front with our clients. We find that, sometimes, telling a client “no” can be the best way of getting the very best results for them in the long run. You can find out more about that here…
- There are some simple steps you can take to give yourself the best possible chance of success. Better yet, I’m willing to share them with you.
So how can your academics better engage with the media?
1. Say something!
All too often, academics hedge their bets when faced with media exposure. Unwilling to make a firm statement – even if their research backs it up – for fear of being critiqued or discredited on a public stage. These are very valid concerns, especially amongst a research community where reputations must be guarded. But the media landscape does not operate in the same way. Information, opinion and speculation is vital for effective storytelling.
Think of the news articles that have captured your attention and why they have done so. Often it is because they have told you something new – expanded your understanding on the subject matter or offered an alternative perspective for your consideration.
Journalists are employed to inform their readers – to build and advance stories and educate their readers. In the same way your academics are charged with educating the students who pass through their classes. Consider, your institution’s programmes would not be well regarded if they failed to educate the students who attend them. A journalist seeking to write a news story faces the same responsibility – they must educate others. Put yourself in their shoes and consider how what you have to say can help them to do so.
If you share a pitch with a journalist that fails to commit to a statement, one which simply reflects on ground already covered or offers too many perspectives to narrow down into one narrative, you will undoubtedly be ignored.
Worst case scenario – your pitch will be identified as unhelpful, your follow-ups will be seen as irritating and, as a result, future pitches from you or your academic colleagues may be deliberately overlooked as a result.
In short, if you’ve got nothing to say, don’t say anything at all.
2. Don’t be bland!
A natural progression from the advice given above. Make sure your academic has something to say that offers something new, but also take the time to consider how they say it.
Speak plainly, bluntly and use emotive language without over exaggeration. You DON’T need to be sensationalist to provoke a response, but you DO need to be understood. The language and terminologies used in academic journals is inappropriate for a national top tier newspaper (and often unsuitable for an industry focused publication too) so think about who you are trying to appeal to and choose your phrasing based on this.
The most effective writers and speakers strike a chord with their audience, have a clear message and can communicate it swiftly. To break through the noise your faculty must also be able to do the same.
As well as helping to grab attention instantly, pitching in this manner can also reassure a journalist that your academics can speak well – making them a far more appealing prospect for interviews and even op-eds. And once you’ve got your foot in the door and established a personality, it is infinitely easier to do so again.
And such activities are far from frivolous or shallow. They offer big benefits. For academics, boosting their public profile in such a manner can offer a wealth of opportunity – from new research partnerships, to being invited to share their research and advice directly with government bodies and industry, invitations to new networks and events… the list goes on.
3. Offer solutions!
Your academics might have predicted economic armageddon, or offered some sobering stats about the likely ratio of humans to robots in the year 2030. And these topics might well make a journalist sit up and take notice if you’re pitching it to the right outlets. But there are many other experts that could speculate on such things. To give your faculty an edge over the competition, don’t just drop the bomb and run. Ensure they’re also able to offer some form of solution, advice or guidance for the problem they’re addressing.
Doing this gives journalists a better idea of the narrative their eventual reporting could take, and positions your member of faculty at the centre of this discussion. It also, as an additional benefit, highlights your academics as progressive thinkers and thought leaders. To readers it gives them a clear example of your institution’s capabilities and can help in reputation building, setting your institution apart from its nearest competitors in a way that rankings cannot.
Again, these solutions do not always need to backed up by research findings or statistics. Offering a well-informed opinion or intelligent speculation is often just as valuable to a journalist because it opens their articles up for further discussion. Readers will engage and share their own interpretations of what has been said, and journalists may also be commissioned to write further articles on the subject – offering future opportunities for your academics to share their ideas.
4. Consider your targets
Your colleagues might want the FT. They may dream of the Economist or sitting down with the New York Times. It might even happen (especially if you follow the above advice). But, it might not.
And a big part of the reason why is failing to consider whether those outlets might want them in the first place.
The FT certainly brings a wonderful level of clout for those that can successfully engage with it – but it might not be the most effective audience for the story you’re trying to tell. Other, perhaps less visible but equally impactful, outlets might provide a better home for what your faculty want to say.
In our pursuit of trying to engage journalists it is all too easy to only think about what the media can do for us… this perspective is the wrong one to take, and will often lead to disappointment.
Instead, when pitching, it is vital to consider not just what the media can do for us, but what we can do for the media.
Before sending your pitch, get to know your targets – the topics they cover and the manner in which they do so. Is what you’re offering a good match? If not, don’t send it. You will not get the response you’re seeking.
Widen your scope to consider other news outlets – whether other top tier titles or well respected industry-focused publications, broadcast channels and even podcasts. Doing so provide you with more positive responses and more opportunities for your faculty to break beyond academic circles to share their expertise with the wider world. The type of engagement you receive will also offer greater opportunity for your faculty to shine. For example, what might have been a short few comments on the sustainability efforts of multinational corporations in a top tier newspaper could provide inspire a full feature on the responsibility that such industries have to protect our earth (and how your academic’s research can help them to do so) in a well-respected industry title. And these are the articles that an audience are more likely to learn from and remember – which is, of course, exactly the result you should be hoping to secure.
Good PR is not a vanity project. Used correctly it can build solid reputations with an ever-growing audience, bring new opportunities, inspire others and create tangible impact. Focusing on the top tier alone will not do this for you…
… but following these steps just might.
And, if you’re better respected, more visible and have established a solid reputation for expertise and credibility, its far more likely those once un-reachable outlets will not only respond to what you send out, they might actually start proactively reaching out to you.
There is, of course, much more to say on this topic – such as getting your timing right when trying to appeal to the media, and the adaptations you might need to make to your outreach when attempting to appeal to media overseas. This blog offers a solid starting point, but further guidance can be found (for free!) on our website – though our blogs, webinars, e-books and podcast. And, if you can’t find the answers you need there, you can always get in touch directly.
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.
Originally published July 2016, updated September 2022