Publicity 2.0: When you still need to get some press

You can define yourself all day—but media stories still help confirm your reputation

By Dick Jones, principal of Dick Jones Communications, a public relations firm serving higher education

News media visibility is only one element of a marketing plan. And there are those who question whether it still has utility in these times when it is easy to reach the right people directly with your message. I say that it remains valuable for these reasons:

  • Positive news media visibility is a third-party endorsement of importance and quality. It is not seen as you talking about yourself.
  • Media attention helps develop name recognition in support of your message. An admissions dean once told me that students rarely applied to his college if they hadn’t heard of it before being contacted directly by the school.
  • Media recognition builds support among key publics. It confirms among those who are neutral, or already inclined to support you, that it is the right decision to do so.

When planning a news media visibility campaign, it’s useful to determine what your reputation-defining stories are. These are elements of your product or service that set you apart.

I have found that the number of reputation-defining stories is less important than their quality. Put another way, I would rather have one story that makes editors sit up and take notice than eight that make them yawn. A newsworthy reputation-defining story usually is one that has specific elements illustrating a general theme. It’s tough to do it the other way around. If your reputation-defining story is “quality,” for example, that is insufficient for a news pitch. Your competitors, after all, also claim quality as their franchise. What do you do that proves your point?

In the early 1990s, Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., devised a plan whereby high school seniors in the top 10 percent of their class were awarded half-tuition scholarships. Those in the top 20 percent got one-third tuition scholarships. Those from the top 30 percent earned one-quarter scholarships. This was (and remains) a great reputation-defining story for the college. While other colleges touted their commitment to fi-nancial aid generally, Lebanon Valley College made its pledge specific and easily understood. For a year after instituting this policy, however, not much happened. Then the college made a major effort to garner news media attention for their program. The resulting coverage from The Associated Press, CNN, USA Today and others, including a favorable editorial in The Washington Post, jump-started interest in Lebanon Valley College. Admissions inquiries and applications soared. Enrollment, which had been under 800 students before the publicity campaign, rose significantly and steadily every year to a healthy 1,700 today. Net tuition revenue increased. And the academic profile of the student body improved.

Lebanon Valley College does a lot of things well. The school offers strong pre-professional programs, has always been known for its music curriculum, and has a robust reputation in the natural sciences. But when it came to selecting a reputation-defining story, they did not try to sell the concept that “we do education better.” Instead, their story became “we reward your child’s scholastic achievements.” The result? They now enroll stronger students and their curriculum is better than ever.

The scholarship program continues to be a reputation definer for the college. A few years ago, ABC World News Tonight did a three-minute segment on it.

When Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala., decided recently to move from “big-time” sports to nonscholarship athletics, that was news. The college became only the second school in a quarter-century to move from the NCAA’s Division 1 to Division 3. By doing so, Birmingham-Southern told two reputation-defining stories. One is, “we value aca-demics more than athletics.” Another is, “we are good stewards of our resources.”

When President David Pollick first arrived on campus he found athletics running a $6 million deficit. They were offering more than 140 athletic scholarships and only one full academic scholarship. Pollick got the trus-tees’ OK to move from scholarship to nonscholarship sports and, in the process, started a football team, last seen on campus in 1939. The budget deficit shrank. Admissions numbers grew.

This was a good reputation-defining story and one that was told by The New York Times, several influential trade press outlets in higher education, and a Public Broadcasting System video documentary in January 2008. What better way to showcase two positive reputation-defining messages?

In summary, there is a big place in the marketing plan for media relations. Find your reputation-defining story and leverage the third-party endorsement you get when the news media notice it.

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