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Tips and Best Practices: Media Relations Skills and Tactics

For the past 30+ years, journalists at the annual College Media Conference, hosted by the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, have shared tips and best practices for campus PR pros to gain coverage for their institutions. This series of blog posts highlights the advice of journalists and PR experts on “Perfecting Your Pitch,” “Social Media Tips and Best Practices,” “Pitching Science Reporters,” and “Crisis Communications Best Practices,” and ends with a short post on “Journalists’ Pet Peeves.”


Perfecting Your Pitch

Whether the journalist is a hard news, business, science, or education reporter, much of the advice to PR pros is the same:

  • Craft a comprehensive media strategy and follow it.
  • Use a PR firm or communications consultant. These experts can help shape and execute your strategy, and can help bolster your advice to the president or board member who insists the news is worthy of the cover of the New York Times.
  • Know what a reporter writes about. If you pitch a story that has nothing to do with that reporter’s beat, you risk alienation from that journalist.
  • Research who covers your issue or topic. From Jane Karr, Education Life editor at the New York Times: Education coverage at the Times is now decentralized. “There is no longer an education editor—everybody covers education now, including sports, lifestyle, metro, business—so PR officers need to rethink how and to whom they pitch a story.”
  • Anticipate the news. Prepare to respond to it and contact reporters well before they need to write the story.
  • Promote your specialists. Ensure that your website features a list of the college’s specialists—and confirm that the specialists can speak effectively and will be available when needed.
  • Be accessible. From Emily Richmond, contributor to the Atlantic and public editor of the Education Writers Association (EWA): One-third of EWA members say they have trouble getting access to schools and campuses. “Be gatekeepers—not prison guards. Help reporters gain access, build relationships.”
  • Keep story pitches direct and concise. Make sure the main point of the email is visible in the first few lines of an email and check what the email would look like on a mobile phone. From Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed: he said he has never rejected a pitch “because it was too short.” He just needs three sentences that explain the issue, why it’s of interest, and contact information.
  • Find emerging national trends of several colleges doing new and interesting things. From Nick Anderson, higher education reporter for the Washington Post: “Make sure the story isn’t just important for your institution. I need to be able to pitch it to the world…. I want to know about your ‘gee whiz’ stories, but make them very ‘gee’ and very ‘whiz.’” And from Melanie Jackson, producer of NBC’s Today Show: producers are generally interested in “trends, tragedies, and triumphs.”
  • Pitch solutions instead of problems: explain to the reporter “what works” and how colleges are fixing problems. From Jon Marcus, higher education editor at the Hechinger Report and correspondent at Times Higher Education (UK): “I’m interested in stories that show a solution to a problem.”
  • Cooperate with the media when a problem occurs at your institution. From Anemona Hartocollis at the New York Times: “If I’m going to write about an issue, it’s better to engage with me and help shape my point of view than to be obstructionist—I’m going to write the story anyway.”
  • Know how to respond to queries regarding college affordability, student debt, financial aid, and saving for and paying for college. For example, pitch stories about specific college initiatives to reduce student debt or how colleges improve graduation rates for Pell-eligible students. Reporters say they are interested in pitches that answer critiques of higher education and stories of experimentation and attempts to try to improve something in the academy. From Chad Lorenz at Slate: “If you are at an institution that is doing it right [responding to or solving a problem], it makes sense to me that you would want to trumpet it…make it a positive.”
  • Broaden your outreach to media. Identify at least one new outlet (even a nonmedia outlet) that reaches your key audiences but you aren’t pitching to yet. From Michael Smart, president of Michael Smart PR: Target five to ten key “media influencers,” read their stories, and react to them via social media in order to get noticed by the journalist, who will then be more receptive to pitches.
  • Tailor your press releases. Large, mainstream media platforms are bombarded with press releases and requests for coverage. Do not put “press release” in the email subject line—your subject line should identify the issue being pitched.
  • Go local. Target local media, which are often a source for national media coverage. From Amy Salit, producer of the public radio show Fresh Air with Terry Gross: “Get your people out in all forms of media—even local papers. Then I can find them in a Google search.”
Laura Wilcox