“Let’s do some PR for this”…
A member of your faculty is hosting an event, or has published a book perhaps, or a new programme has been launched by your institution, and the request comes in… “Let’s do some PR on this.”
All too often PR is underestimated. All it takes is a communications professional to bash out a quick press release, right? And surely, it’s easy to ring a journalist and have them write something favourable? Isn’t it?
PR is not a quick task. It requires forethought and consideration from the very beginning of the planning and development process of whatever it is you’re looking to shine a spotlight on – be it a new book or a new building.
Chances are, if PR is the last item on your institution’s to-do list, it’s too late to bother doing at all.
Fragmented efforts and sporadic media outreach will provide little benefit to your institution in the long-run. When attempting to create a more public profile for your institution, or wider recognition for any of its developments, you need time to lay the groundwork, you need to create consistency, and you need to have an effective strategy in place from the get-go.
So, what should you consider when designing a winning strategy?
1. Set a goal.
What do you hope to accomplish by engaging with media? Do you want to establish your institution as a go-to place for particular skillset and boost enrolment figures? Do you want to turn your Dean into a recognised thought leader? Are you hoping to secure investment for a new development? All three? Regardless of what you hope to achieve, you need to have your end goal established and agreed upon before you get started. Doing this will help direct your efforts, ensuring each activity you undertake helps to serve a central purpose.
2. Establish your team
Consider who your key players are and, most importantly, which of these might be the most compelling individuals to work with. Many institutions make the mistake of prioritising their most senior figures over their most interesting ones. Whilst it’s always helpful to have the Dean supporting your efforts, they are not necessarily the most compelling people to have in your arsenal when it comes to approaching media, or the most readily available. A journalist is unlikely to care about the rank of the person you’re attempting to connect them with if that individual has little-or-nothing to say on the topic at hand, or cannot meet their deadlines. Take time to source those voices who can best support your cause and secure their buy-in before you begin your media outreach.
3. Get to know your audience
Following first two steps - and indeed the rest - is futile unless you’re able to identify with your desired audience and the media that engages them (more on the latter in step 4), and this will be different in each sector and each global location. Take the time to understand the topics your audience deem important, the outlets they gather their news from and how they engage with that information. This will help you to design compelling pitches for media and enable you to present your institutions’ spokespeople in a way that affirms their expertise puts them front and centre of the most important discussions.
4. Get to know your journalists
Similarly, you need to take the time to understand what motivates and appeals the journalists operating in your desired media sector/geography. Do they like to publish in-depth interviews with one individual? Do they write long-form exploratory articles which combine a variety of voices to tell a story? Are they focused on local issues and experts or do they welcome an international perspective? Familiarity with a journalist’s reporting style and areas of interest is invaluable when pitching your ideas – particularly when approaching them for the first time. A journalist is more likely to respond to a PR who has clearly done their homework and can offer something of real interest and value, rather than one who has either only got their own priorities in mind, or is likely to have shared the same information with multiple other parties.
5. Assess your competition
There is little that truly unique these days. Chances are your institution isn’t the first to advocate for women in STEM, or to launch digitally-savvy education programmes for example. And, if these topics are a priority for your stakeholders it’s highly likely that they’ll matter to the institutions you’re up against. Invest some time in paying attention to how other institutions communicate with the media and their audiences; the methods they use and the stance they choose to take, and bear this in mind when planning your own approach. How can you differentiate your message to stand apart from others? What value can you bring to a discussion that other institutions seem to be missing? Conversely, is there any value to be gained by building on what they have already shared? Sometimes, when appealing to the media, there is a strength to be found in numbers.
6. Use the tools at your disposal
You don’t have to rely on the media to get the word out about your institution’s news, there’s plenty you can do yourself to amplify your voice. Outside of publicising news on your website and through your own marketing materials, social media provides an ideal platform to share your expertise. Engage faculty in building their influence on LinkedIn by publishing posts and interacting with influential groups, sharing their opinions on topics of interest and importance. Keep the institution’s page up to date with the latest news and activities. Go one step further and make a point of actively engaging with faculty, students and alumni, helping to turn them into advocates for your institution and its values.
Your strategy does not need to be set it stone. Its important to take the time on a regular basis to reflect on your efforts and consider whether they’re having the desired impact. It can be tricky to effectively measure the value of a PR campaign (the industry has never established one agreed method of doing so), but relying on methods such as AVE may not be an effective or even realistic measure of your work – no matter how impressive the numbers may look! Instead consider the position and feedback of your faculty, are they satisfied? Perhaps look to your institution’s web traffic, has there been an uptick in engagement? Or increased enquiries or applications for a programme. They are many avenues to consider.
8. Seek professional help
I don’t mean to imply that doing all of the above might drive you mad (though I’d understand if it did), but instead to raise the point that you do not have to do all of this alone. Maintaining a consistent, cohesive and responsive PR strategy that can deliver results and contribute to growth of your institution is vital, but it’s no small feat, and often requires more time and resource than you have available if PR is just one of the hats you wear. Many in-house PR and communications teams regard external agencies warily, finding the right fit with a proactive, knowledgeable and well-connected agency operating within your sector is possibly the most valuable investment you can make – both for your institution and for you.