Effective University PR Begins On Campus

Like it or not, working with student media is a regular part of institutional media relations on any college campus; those who do it well minimize reporting of incorrect information and address issues before they become a crisis. The best university PR departments know that relationships with student media outlets are every bit as important as the likes of the New York Times, CNN or The Chronicle of Higher Education- perhaps even more crucial. The primary consumers of student media (students, faculty, donors, alumni and staff) make up your most important audience. And, as many universities have learned the hard way, today’s micro-blogging world means student media outlets have a much wider audience than ever before… people are spreading student media stories across the globe, 140 characters at a time.

Take the recent debacle at Arizona State University, for example. ASU’s student daily, the State Press, touched off a firestorm when it reported with the headline “Obama won’t receive ASU honorary degree.” Commencement speakers are typically awarded honorary degrees as a sign of respect and appreciation. However, ASU President Michael Crow decided not to honor President Obama. “His body of work is yet to come. That’s why we’re not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency,” university spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said to the Associate Press only hours after the State Press first reported the decision. The story became a national issue faster than “the wave” spreads through Sun Devil Stadium, thrusting ASU into the center of a national debate and intense media scrutiny that did major damage to the institution’s image.

With so many issues facing academia and university public affairs, it’s easy to forget about the student writer sitting on the other side of campus. Here are some suggestions on how to execute successful media relations with student media:

Focus on building relationships
Even the most veteran journalists have biases because they are human beings. Most students are not at a professional level where they are able to completely separate their role as a reporter from their experience as a student; they see the world through the eyes of a student first. If I were to go back and review every story I wrote as a student reporter (yes, it would involve microfiche), I’d probably cringe. But, I’d also find articles that helped my alma mater’s administration clearly communicate the right message because the President took time to build a meaningful relationship with me as a senior writer for the student paper.  At most institutions, student media outlets are managed by faculty advisors or an advisory board. The university PR team must foster a strong relationship with the advisor (or advisory board) and make that relationship a priority.

It’s About Learning Good Journalism
Remember it’s not about censoring student journalists; it’s about ensuring accurate information and helping them become better by holding them accountable to factual reporting. This is not accomplished through criticism and your role is not to “grade” their work. By nurturing strong relationships with these budding reporters, you can help students understand the big picture and importance of balanced journalism if they’ve not reported things accurately. And don’t forget it’s important to let them know when they’ve done a good job. Nothing is more rewarding to a student journalist than receiving and email or phone call from a university administrator saying “nice work!”

Get Out of the Ivory Tower
Provide regular, personal access to university leaders, including the President. Because leadership at student media organizations changes every year (some every semester), its imperative to always be focused on fostering relationships with student editors and writers who regularly cover the administration. Schedule a reoccurring time for editors to meet with key university administrators (President, Deans, Provost, etc.). Make these meetings informal and enjoyable. Don’t always meet in the office- schedule some as lunch or dinner at a popular campus hangout. You’ll find that making time for student media away from the administration building makes for a much more meaningful conversation and helps alleviate the “administrator vs. student” dynamic that so often manifests itself in student coverage. Senior administrators should make cameos at campus media staff meetings on a consistent basis, every semester. They need to view their leaders as accessible and visible.

Know their deadlines, and answer the phone!
The best university PR teams provide 24/7 availability to media and student reporters are no exception. Let’s face it, college students procrastinate and they are often working on their stories in the 11th hour of their deadline- ensure that a senior member of your PR staff is available to student reporters who need last-minute information or a quote. Know the deadlines for your student media outlet and be prepared for those calls in advance. During my tenure as university PR guy, I would stay on campus well into the evening on weekly deadline days and student writers knew they could call my cell phone or simply stop by my office.

Let Student Media Break Big News
When your institution has big news to share let student media tell it first. If nothing else, give student media private face time with the president before a major press conference. By working closely with student reporters and editors on major announcements, you’ll build trust, help influence the story angle, and reinforce key messaging in mainstream media coverage. Don’t forget that professional reporters are influenced by student media; in fact, they often cite student-written stories as the general opinion of the greater student body. How many times have you seen a TV reporter holding a copy of the student newspaper with a bold headline as a prop?

Whether you manage PR for a small liberal arts school in rural America or represent the largest university in your state, take a proactive, positive approach to working with student media. It’s a truly enjoyable experience to help student reporters grow into professional journalists… and who knows, you might foster a meaningful relationship that extends beyond campus and proves valuable later in your career. A student editor I befriended while working in university public relations is now at a major news organization; she was largely influential in landing a national placement you’ll find in the Ink & Air section of JoePRguy.com.

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