• The Unwinnable Game of Media Relations

    by  • June 11, 2012 • On News Media and Media Relations

    Those of you who have labored long and hard in the minefield of media relations know it is a thankless endeavor. You can never generate enough news media coverage to satisfy the leadership of your institution.

    And even when you score a big hit in the media the story can contain errors or misrepresent some aspect of your institution or program. I’ll not forget opening up the business section of the New York Times many years ago to see a trend story I had pitched running across the top of an inside page. The story included Stanford, Michigan and the university I worked for at the time. I was ecstatic. Not only did the piece highlight an area of business education we wanted to promote, it grouped my second-tier institution with two of the leading universities in the country. Home run.

    While I was figuratively circling the base on Monday morning the phone rang. Business school dean. Kudos all around, I thought. Uh, no. The dean, already predisposed to think anyone who worked for Stanford was far superior to me, wanted to know why the story’s accompanying photo featured Stanford students and not students from his school. He turned my homer into a ground-rule double, at best.

    I’ve never heard anyone say, “We get way too much media coverage.” Media relations is pretty much an unwinnable game. That’s why I have long advocated that college and university PR shops avoid making them the spotlight of their public relations programs. This caution should be particularly apropos today as the impact of traditional news media continues to diminish. Effective media relations is an important element of any comprehensive public relations program, but it must not be permitted to define your success.

    I’ve done media relations long enough and hard enough that I feel like I have seen and heard it all. That’s why I feel qualified to offer up my “10 questions most frequently asked of media relations professionals in higher education.” I’m asking the media relations pros out there, How many of these questions or ones like them, have you had to deal with?

    1. Doesn’t someone at the New York Times want to interview the president?
    2. The guy gave us $1 million, for God’s sake. Can’t you get the news media to cover that?
    3. Sure, you can get news coverage for the easy stuff, the stuff the media want to cover. But why can’t you get coverage of the great work we are doing in Boolean algebra or stochastic modeling?
    4. (If your ranking went up in the U.S. News & World Report survey): What took them so long to start recognizing the excellence of our faculty and students?
    5. (If your ranking went down in U.S. News & World Report ranking survey): Why aren’t we getting good PR like those schools ahead of us?
    6. Don’t we need a big-name PR agency to get national press coverage?
    7. Why can’t we get the news coverage we deserve?
    8. Why weren’t we in that Times story about mating fruit flies? We have the best guy in the country on that subject on our faculty.
    9. Why can’t we get the kind of good media coverage they get at (fill in the blank) college across town?
    10. We have the most innovative curriculum in higher education. Why can’t you get media coverage of that?