When was the last time you sent out an email inviting a journalist to attend an on-campus event, and received a positive response? Or sent out a release under embargo, only to receive silence in response?
I’d be willing to wager it happens more likely than many reading this would like to admit.
It can feel like an impossible task to get local media to engage with your institution’s news – never mind national or even international titles. And yet your competitors seem to be able to accomplish such feats with ease – so where are you going wrong?
What’s the plan?
When institutions talk about media exposure, most of that discussion focuses on output – what information the institution can send to journalists. All too often other, equally important, considerations are overlooked – such as who to contact, when to do so, how to reach out and, vitally, why anyone on the receiving end of their distributions should care.
I’d be willing to place another bet, that your institution’s outreach method follows the same path every time – a press release which is likely a few pages long, filled with carefully constructed corporate messages and possibly some jargon too, distributed via a wire service or to a general media database.
And, following this, aside of a few local outlets, the alumni community and (if you’re lucky) an education-focused outlet, there is little in the way of response or reaction.
And this is where the problem lies. It is no good spending the time and effort on crafting the press release, and gaining sign off from multiple parties, if your efforts only prompt responses from the same limited audience – or worse fail to gain a response entirely.
You need to change your tactics.
If you need an analogy, envision throwing a stone into a pool of still water. When the stone breaks the surface a ripple effect emerges, widening the further it travels away from the impact zone.
The stone is the message you want to get in front of the media. To your own institution and your existing community that news is likely to be highly relevant, and as such carries enough weight to break the surface of the water. And it should! News is not news at all if it does not serve to create a fundamental change for its core audience.
Similarly those first, larger ripples at the edge of the impact zone represent your local, perhaps even domestic media targets. The information you have shared will likely hold a greater appeal with them than others as it pertains to a recognised institution name or faculty member, involves a local area or company, or speaks to local issues.
Here it is far more likely that your news stirs interest – disrupts the surface of the water so to speak - providing all the motivation a journalist needs to want to write on it (providing you’re pitching to the right people and outlets of course, but that’s another discussion entirely… ).
As the ripples expand and the circle (your potential audience) grows bigger, the impact decreases in size until the ripples fade away completely.
The difficulty for many institutions lies in understanding why the stone breaks the surface at the point of impact, but does not have the power to cause more than an ever-decreasing ripple as it travels further away. The challenge lies in how to change this sequence of events…
Bigger rocks, bigger splash?
One, perhaps obvious way to help ensure a bigger splash is to change the size of what you’re throwing – exchanging a stone for a rock for example – which can create a bigger splash and a likely wider reach for the ripple-effect.
Bigger news events are more likely to create a bigger impact. For example, news of a new Dean might stir more interest than adaptations to a module, or news of an alumni event. However, even this tactic has limitations in its effectiveness. Such news only travels so far – appealing to only certain sectors of media and audiences. Furthermore, simply offering the same blanket statements to every outlet can remove the appeal for any follow-up on the journalist’s part.
Before reaching out to media, consider who you’ll be contacting, what they are most motivated by. Nationally, the news of a new Dean at your institution might cause a stir, but internationally? Well, you might need to get a little more creative.
Think of each ring of the ripple effect like its own impact zone and consider what would be required to make your news break the surface. Perhaps your new Dean spent a great deal of their career in the country you’re hoping to gain interest from? Perhaps there are initiatives at your institution which are designed to support students from far-flung locations that might help to prompt a deeper level of interest? Or wider international trends that your new Dean is contributing to?
Picking up on local interests and taking the time to demonstrate how your news might best be related to this provides the last essential ingredient for pitching; why a journalist should want to work with the news you’ve shared with them, providing a stronger narrative to build a story around.
Institutions should also choose what they throw carefully – constantly trying to chuck rocks into the water gets overwhelming and chaotic. The rings of contact become blurred under choppy waters and the opportunity to tell a clear story and trace a path to the right people becomes difficult. Choosing to share everything in the same way and at the same level can quickly overwhelm and exhaust journalists, as well as hinder your authenticity, making them less likely to want to engage with you in future.
Alter how you throw it
Consider, before clicking send or picking up the phone, does your message truly warrant such outreach? Not every piece of news you wish to share deserves the same level of effort or the same style of outreach.
Does it need a press release? Or would a short pitch to a smaller, more curated selection of media be more appropriate? Media outreach should not only focus on what the sender wants to put out but should also consider what their intended recipient might want to receive – and how. Shorter messages, less formality, the ability to tie your news into an interest of theirs or a wider story beyond your institution’s walls are all highly effective ways to break through.
The beauty lies in the detail – or sometimes lack of it. Institutions have fallen foul of overthinking every element of what they wish to send out and, as a result have either provided far too much information (much of which become irrelevant to what the journalist might need) or have opted to share nothing at all, which doesn’t make for ideal storytelling.
It takes a great deal of both institutional and media familiarity to be able to discern what information (and how much) should be shared, and how far. Unfortunately, such knowledge takes time and investment to build. But there is support available…
Get a friend to throw it for you
PR agencies exist for exactly this reason. Any worthwhile agency makes it their mission to understand such nuances and share these insights with their clients, helping them to craft compelling stories which land with enough impact to prompt a response from those desired media outlets and locales (it’s something we at BlueSky are very familiar with!). A good external agency will work not just for, but with a client institution, advising not just on how to engage but also, vitally, when to not share anything at all.
Handing over some of the responsibility for news distribution not only takes the weight off an institution’s shoulders but invites new ideas and perspectives. Each agency will likely have different ideas, so it’s worthwhile taking the time to find one which has a proven track record in your industry, a wide and growing network, and can demonstrate they understand your objectives.
Change where you aim it
Some stories will do better in certain locales than others, so pick your target well. For example, academic research can make significantly bigger waves in relevant and highly influential industry-focused press than it might in national newspapers, by allowing them to demonstrate exactly how their expertise can impact the real world.
Looking globally, topics that are popular close to home might not hold traction (or even be understood) in another. A journalist in Sao Paulo might not care about how the money of UK taxpayers is being used in higher education, in the same way that a journalist in London might.
If you are hoping to secure media coverage overseas, do not make the mistake of assuming that the narrative in one country will match the one in your own, or that the media operates in the same way. Drop elements of your story that are irrelevant or unhelpful to international audiences in favour of angles that can realistically stir interest, adapt your outreach style and do your homework in finding writers who are closely aligned with the subject matter.
Break it into smaller pieces
If you were to smash that rock or stone into smaller fragments and fling them across the lake, you’d see many more, albeit smaller, impact points and ripples covering a much wider surface – sometimes overlapping to create a bigger disturbance.
The same can be said of media outreach. Not all media outreach has to be internationally focused – or even nationally for that matter. You can (and should) mix things up by adapting your distribution to better target and encompass national and international titles, industry-focused outlets, online and traditional media – the list goes on.
There is a limited amount of opportunity to be found in focusing on the same outlets repeatedly. By exploring new/emerging, smaller or even unfamiliar but reputable outlets not only do you open your institution up to more opportunity and, as a result, more frequent media coverage, but you’ll also find your institution becomes recognised amongst a wider range of people, all around the world.
Which is, of course, exactly what it’s all about.
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.