How to Encourage Media Engagement With Your School’s Website
Posted March 25, 2016 by Robert Wynne
- President - Wynne Communications
Universities are a great place to learn—not just for students, but for communications professionals as well. Collegiate websites are highly trafficked by a variety of different stakeholder groups, including journalists. If you work in academic communications or the PR industry for higher education, you need to know how to influence the media by offering information and sources, and there’s no better laboratory from which to learn than universities.
Academic settings possess several advantages over businesses: unique research, expert professors and staff, and, sometimes, a trove of original content. How academic units and institutions manage those resources and make them available to reporters and the public offers lessons on how best to organize information for the highest engagement.
Obviously, there are many constituencies for business schools and collegiate sites: alumni, current students, applicants, donors, an others. For the purpose of this exercise, however, let's concentrate on the News/Media sections of websites only, because that’s where reporters often begin their search.
This is probably not a news flash, but if these sections are weak, the rest of the site usually needs help. I reached out to three media gurus who frequently report on higher education. Here’s what they had to say about university websites. (Hint: most academic sites earned high grades, with some room for improvement.)
Natalie DiBlasio, Digital Media Editor, USA Today, @ndiblasio
If I need an expert, I’ll often go to a university website to try to find a professor with experience in a particular area. For me, the best experience is when I can easily find a department’s page and can access a list of professors with bios and contact information. ... If I can’t find the professor’s contact information myself, I won’t waste the time to call the department, wait to see if they’ll transfer me, and risk having to leave a message. Usually I can’t wait for a call back. If a university asks to okay my questions before I can speak to a professor, I will always go to a different university.
If a university has a "contact us" form instead of an email, I pass. It makes me feel like I am going to a generic inbox and I can’t waste the time waiting to see if it’s checked. Usually I scroll right to the bottom of the page and look for the "Press" or "Media" link. That’s where most places put the portal.
If there is breaking news at a university, I often turn to their social media sites before the website to see if they’ve posted any information about upcoming press conferences. Usually, businesses and even police departments post these things on social media first, so it’s become my norm to check there immediately. If the university isn’t offering interviews, I look to press releases for official statements and for the phone number of the press officer.
John Byrne, Editor and Publisher, Poets & Quants, @JohnAByrne
The most frustrating thing universities do is to have a vague email address with no name or phone number of the actual people you want to contact. I hate seeing info@university. Every university should list by name, phone number, and email every staffer who handles media calls, along with their titles. I will often just pass on a school that doesn't do this. School websites that don't tell you who to contact in communications just encourage journalists to go straight to who they actually want to talk to and to avoid the PR folks altogether.
Rick Newman, Columnist, Yahoo Finance, @rickjnewman
I actually LIKE university websites, for one big reason: They usually list direct contact info for professors and other staff, which is a huge time-saver. Obviously that cuts out the PR person sometimes, but if you know who you're looking for, it doesn't matter and a PR person often costs time rather that save time. Corporate PR sites are notoriously awful at helping you reach actual people, instead funneling you into group email addresses that might go to a live person but you never know. And the phone numbers often go to some switchboard where there's no human. I also find academics way easier to deal with than corporate people, for obvious reasons: Usually they say what they want and they don't bother with the corporate talking points.
PR folks at universities are usually helpful, but to be good they must know who's able to talk in detail about what, and of course they sometimes have a lot of people to handle. That said, I rate university PR a lot better than corporate PR.
In summary, here are five lessons to enhance the news sections of academic websites.
- List names and direct media contacts. All PR people who deal with journalists should be listed. In the digital age, reporters do not have the time or patience to submit information online. The “fill in this form and we’ll get back to you” says “We are too busy to deal with you.”
- Make your content mobile-friendly. About half of Google searches now occur on mobile devices. If your website appears slow and dated on a big screen, it definitely won’t work on a smart phone or tablet. In that case, it’s time for a redesign.
- Provide email addresses and phone numbers for professors. Reporters love this. Many times they don’t have the time to call a PR person and wait for a response. Your chances of getting quoted are much higher if journalists are allowed to speak directly to the faculty.
- Link to all your social media pages: Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Pinterest, etc. This can be done on one graphic or in small links at the bottom of the Media/News page. Some good examples of social media links are on the news pages for Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Management, Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, and MIT Sloan School of Management.
- Organize, organize, organize. It’s surprising how many collegiate sites merge media placements and press releases into one pile. And even more universities dump tons of press releases on their site with—you guessed it—no media contact listed.
Most universities teach communications in some form. Those lessons often include public relations and website design. And to be fair, most academic institutions present some very good websites. But there are enough news sections that are lacking to warrant a case for improvement. In those instances, it’s time to take steps to simplify, make connections clearer, and encourage the media to visit your site again and again.
Robert Wynne owns a public relations and events agency in Manhattan Beach, California. He also writes a public relations column in Forbes. Wynne is the former director of communications for the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. He is currently working on a book, The Persuasion Business: An Insider’s Guide to Public Relations.