MARKET FOCUS: EDUCATION PR - Campus counselors. PR departments at colleges and universities are struggling to gain adequate budgets - and respect - from their administrators. Ana Vargas reports

With bruising competition for new students, PR is more important than ever for colleges and universities. But it maintains a precarious position on campus. Administrators want good press but don’t want to seem too eager. Their ambivalence is reflected in the small PR budgets many such institutions allow. PR pros are being asked to do more - including getting into new areas like community relations, crisis management and, especially, recruitment - with less.

With bruising competition for new students, PR is more important than ever for colleges and universities. But it maintains a precarious position on campus. Administrators want good press but don’t want to seem too eager. Their ambivalence is reflected in the small PR budgets many such institutions allow. PR pros are being asked to do more - including getting into new areas like community relations, crisis management and, especially, recruitment - with less.

With bruising competition for new students, PR is more important

than ever for colleges and universities. But it maintains a precarious

position on campus. Administrators want good press but don’t want to

seem too eager. Their ambivalence is reflected in the small PR budgets

many such institutions allow. PR pros are being asked to do more -

including getting into new areas like community relations, crisis

management and, especially, recruitment - with less.



The biggest problem PR departments at colleges and universities face

today is a lack of support from their administrations. Schools have not

given their PR efforts the same priority they are given in the business

world. ’Colleges are creatively isolated and often do not recognize

themselves as businesses because their primary goal is education,’ says

Norm Schneider, director of media relations and PR at Loyola Marymount

University in Los Angeles.



Adds John Broderick, VP for institutional advancement at Old Dominion

University in Norfolk, VA: ’PR departments find it hard to get the

support they need because PR is not easily understood.’



Essential element



And yet PR is essential to these institutions’ mission. ’Colleges don’t

realize that many of the problems they face are communications

problems,’ says Barry Wagner, head of Wagner Associates, Newton, MA.

Wagner’s firm is one of many PR firms springing up since the 1972

founding of Gehrung Associates University Relations Counselors in Keene,

NH, to assist college and university PR departments. ’If a college has

problems recruiting African-American students, for example, research

needs to be done into how the college is perceived by the students.’



Wagner’s firm works with colleges in the Boston area, often educating

administrators on the need for internal communications and PR that

squarely address the school’s problems. ’For many colleges the goal is

simply to increase visibility,’ Wagner notes. ’Creating and implementing

a total PR strategy is often not given enough thought. But if a college

is located in a community with safety issues, articles on its excellent

research studies will not change that image.’



The lack of understanding by administrators of the need for PR can be

seen in the money allocated for it. PR departments - in both public and

private schools - work under constant budget constraints. Small colleges

and two-year colleges usually have one-to-two-person PR departments, and

even large universities usually employ only up to eight full-time

pros.



’PR departments are expected to get the university’s name in print but

rarely have the funds for press packets and other materials,’ says Todd

Sedmak, director of media relations at American University in

Washington, DC. ’The market is changing fast and PR departments need the

resources to change with it.’



But, Sedmak adds hopefully: ’Colleges and universities are starting to

realize that they have to create a dynamic image of themselves and that

they have to spend money doing it.’



For the most part, university PR is done from a centralized office

rather than having each school or department with its own PR arm, though

the government relations programs that lobby for funds are usually

separate entities. PR departments in public colleges and universities

have the additional assignment of providing grass roots initiatives when

legislative cuts threaten funding.



Another problem sprawling public schools face is integration of their PR

operations. Boards that preside over several colleges sometimes make

decisions without first informing the PR office. For example, Georgia

College & University’s administration oversees 64 public colleges in the

state. ’Press releases are sent out independently by the board,’

explains Lisa Beyer, associate director of university relations at GCU.

’Creating a consistent image of GCU is a constant challenge.’



Indeed, reaching a large and diverse audience with a consistent image is

a hurdle for all educational PR departments. ’Students have very

different backgrounds, interests and needs,’ says Lyle Henderson, media

relations specialist for the University of Maryland. ’Finding a way to

communicate with very different groups is the key to good college PR.’

In addition to the diverse students, audiences for the PR pros include

parents, community, government, alumni, professors and university

administration.



Traditionally, PR for universities and colleges has meant media

relations - getting the school’s name into the major media and promoting

a positive image. At the same time that the departments take on new

duties, media relations has become even more important. PR pros must

distinguish their institutions from thousands of others, in much the

same way brands are developed for consumer products.



The image of a college or university is most often cultivated through

the use of its professors as experts. But even here PR professionals

encounter resistance. ’The administrators want media attention for their

college or university but they often do not understand what is required

to get good media coverage,’ says Schneider, of Loyola Marymount.

’Professors are not always encouraged to speak with reporters or work

with the PR department.’



In fact, many professors are discouraged from appearing in the

mainstream media because lectures and articles are considered more

significant. University departments do not usually consider

contributions to the media in their tenure process.



Ironically, the problem of getting teachers to talk to the media in the

first place is less visible at public universities. Private-school

professors tend to place a higher value on their ivory tower. Public

colleges are bigger and need to appeal to a wider audience - they need

the publicity more. For example, at Old Dominion University and the

University of Maryland, professors are encouraged to work with PR

departments. ’James Koch, our president, has written many op-ed and

commentary pieces for national newspapers,’ says Old Dominion’s

Broderick. ’The importance he places on media coverage filters down to

our professors.’



American University, a private institution, addresses the problem by

publishing an experts guide each January. Distributed to reporters

nationwide and available online, the book lists professors who are

willing to discuss issues on the spot. The teachers are educated in

giving sound bites. ’We’ve made getting our name in print a priority and

making it easy for reporters to reach us is imperative,’ Sedmak says.

Universities also rely on Profnet, the Web-based service created to

provide a connection between reporters and professors.



Tapping into general interest



’The challenge is that the press is driven by current events and

universities are driven by the future, through their focus on education

and research,’ comments David Lampe, associate VP of university

relations at Boston University.



Gaining media coverage relies on finding stories that have a general

interest and can draw in the community. For example, BU’s Favorite Poem

Project, headed by BU professor and US poet laureate Robert Pinsky,

featured celebrities and ’ordinary people’ reading their favorite poems

on a tour of the country.



Poetry, not normally a large national story, became one - covered by The

New York Times, The Washington Post, Life and 60 Minutes.



Education-PR specialists are also getting more involved in the

recruitment area. These days, coaxing students to attend a school relies

heavily on the new electronic media. College PR departments are expected

to keep one step ahead of the trends in order to appeal to students -

who are always on top of the trends. ’The days of the college viewbook

are over,’ says Sedmak. ’Students get their first impression of a

college from its web site.’ PR departments write web copy, work with

recruitment offices on designing web site features and promote the

site.



Colleges are constantly improving their sites to provide easier access

to information. American University’s business school recently launched

a new Web presence that students can customize according to their

interests.



In addition to its site, Old Dominion University also sends CDs -

containing video, text and interactive features - to potential students.

’It’s an excellent follow-up to our web site and it allows the students

to see the aspects of the college that interest them,’ Broderick

says.



Student reliance on electronics led Loyola Marymount University last

summer to issue free beepers to all incoming freshmen. ’Students read

less and this provided a way to reach them directly with deadline

information and suggestions,’ says Schneider. The first-of-its-kind

program received national media coverage including in The Los Angeles

Times. Students also liked the program - including the fact that (for a

small fee) they were allowed to keep the beepers once the school year

started.



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