Digital public relations is a relatively new strategy used in digital marketing to increase organic rankings. It’s a practice where higher education marketers utilize public relations techniques to leverage the expertise and research of faculty members in order to acquire program links on high quality domains and publications. It’s a very important and exciting component of our larger SEO strategy, but it does not come without its own specific set of challenges. Below I will discuss some of the obstacles that are commonly faced when implementing PR for higher ed clients and how to best overcome them to ensure success.
1) The academic and media worlds move at vastly different speeds
Professors are accustomed to more lengthy turnaround times as the academic world can be a slow moving one, but unfortunately the media industry works at a different pace. While a story can be plastered all over the Internet in one day, a few days later it can just as easily seem irrelevant and overdone. This can become problematic when professors aren’t familiar with the short length of news cycles and, therefore, don’t have the same sense of urgency. More importantly, professors are incredibly busy people, which can make delivering timely articles or setting up interviews while the topic is still relevant much more challenging.
Our first priority is to always respect the professor’s time and obligations, which is why we will resort to alternative solutions to accommodate worthwhile opportunities when there is a conflict of time. One way we accomplish this is by offering to jump on a quick call with them to write down their response to a media inquiry (something like a HARO or ProfNet request). This can save a lot of time and hassle on their behalf. If the reporter or editor’s schedule does not align with the professor’s calendar, then we will seek alternative options, such as providing an emailed response instead of a phone interview. If neither of these options work, then we will leverage the expertise of another professor if it aligns with the reporter’s need. Reporters are often very open to this option, but when it comes to major publications like CNN or the New York Times, it’s essential to try and work around the reporter’s schedule, because being published in these type of high quality publications has an extremely low probability and will provide invaluable exposure. It’s very easy for one of these reporters to stop returning emails if scheduling is an issue.
2) Professor inexperience with media interviews
Some professors are less experienced with the media than others and, therefore, are not familiar with the process or the best ways to interact with members of the media. This can lead to professors straying from the topic at hand in an interview or using jargon that is not relatable to the average reader. A lack of media experience can also cause professors to be uncomfortable or distrusting of the media, and as a result, prompt them to request things of reporters, such as a copy of the article or interview, that can create a roadblock in the process. In one case, we had a professor leave an interview feeling that the reporter did not properly grasp his research and because of this, he wanted to see a copy of the article beforehand. While such instances are uncommon, they are in many ways understandable. Professors often have important research and grants underway, as well as outside careers that they don’t want to tarnish or jeopardize in any way with a poorly worded quote or a misrepresentation of their work.
We overcome such challenges by not only thoroughly prepping a professor for an interview (sometimes providing them with an outline of interview questions provided by the reporter) but also by reassuring them that our first priority is their reputation. One way we ensure that they are not put in an adverse situation is by being on their interview calls. Although it’s extremely rare that we need to jump in, we make a point of being present so that we are able to take action in the rare event that a reporter crosses the line or pushes them too hard. We are also not afraid to request that a story be pulled if we think it might put the professor in a bad light. Building trust and mutual respect with professors is crucial to being successful. Again, these are extremely rare occurrences, but we want to be prepared nonetheless.
3) Professor inexperience with non-academic writing
A huge part of a professor’s workload and research consists of publishing their findings in lengthy academic essays. These types of articles have a vastly different style and tone than bylines, which are created for news sites and blogs. Helping professors to understand this distinct difference will not only improve the chances of their article being published, but will also ease the overall process by requiring less edits and feedback which could potentially offend them.
We try to be as clear as possible upfront about the stylistic differences between the type of writing they’re used to and the style of writing required for media outlets to avoid wasting any of their time. We also provide website guidelines and examples of other articles that they should stylistically model their own writing after. If we still still don’t feel that their article effectively embodies the style and tone of the site, then we will provide thorough edits, explaining our reasoning and reiterating that it is their article and ultimately their decision whether to accept our feedback or not. When we go through all of these steps, they usually have a greater understanding and trust in our expertise and are very receptive to our suggestions.
4) Strict university branding guidelines & parameters
Universities often have very specific branding guidelines that they don’t want tarnished or altered. This adds an additional layer of pressure and thoroughness to any marketing/PR efforts done on their behalf.
To ensure that you stick within these guidelines, it’s important to always vet out publications who want to feature a professor or program. If you’re unsure whether a publication will be a positive reflection of the school, then it’s always better to air on the side of caution and pass on an opportunity rather than risk the program’s trust and reputation. Your first priority should always be to preserve and enhance the university’s image.
5) Understanding Complex Research and Making it Relatable
A major component of any successful digital PR strategy for higher ed involves being able to comprehend and leverage the research being conducted within the university program. This requires having a thorough understanding of the material, which can sometimes be complex, and knowing how to best position it to the media so that it gains traction and interest. It is also very important to the integrity of the professor’s work that you represent and pitch it accurately.
In order to accomplish this, we conduct initial interviews with all of the professors we work with. This enables us to dig much deeper into their current research and areas of expertise than their basic online bio’s will allow. We continuously stay up-to-date on relevant industry news which shows us where their research and expertise fits into the larger media narratives and, therefore, sheds light onto how their research can be applied to real-world settings. For example, one of our professor’s specializes in medical coding, and a big industry narrative we leveraged for his expertise was the transition from ICD-9 to ICD-10. While to the everyday person this might be mundane or unfamiliar, it was huge industry news that impacted most healthcare professionals nationwide. By subscribing to and reading healthcare news sites, we were able to effectively pitch and land placements in many relevant verticals for this professor.
Caroline brings a wealth of knowledge in communications, marketing, and account management to the Circa Interactive team. Graduating with honors from the University of Oregon in 2011, Caroline now plays a key role in Circa Interactive’s digital PR strategy by building long term relationships with internationally recognized media outlets on behalf of our clients.