MEDIA ROUNDUP: Media gets ready for back to school

Media interest in back-to-school issues grows as the story evolves beyond basic school supplies to the newest tech and lunch ideas for returning students.

Media interest in back-to-school issues grows as the story evolves beyond basic school supplies to the newest tech and lunch ideas for returning students.

From an annual, almost private rite of passage for American children, accompanied by a few new outfits, a themed lunch box, and classroom supplies, heading back to school has over the past few decades evolved into a national spending spree complete with massive ad campaigns and media interest. "The back-to-school season is growing in importance," says Brian Levine, PR head for Office Depot. "The scope of products has increased exponentially over the last few years, and now it's everything from the core items, like paper, pens, and folders, to calculators, PDAs, and computers, to desks and chairs." What's surprising about back-to-school stories is how few end up being covered by traditional education reporters. "A lot of daily newspapers have special section editors, and those are ones we would pitch for back to school," explains Gail Gardner, account supervisor with Adamson Public Relations. "Sometimes they'll bring in education editors for these sections, but a lot of the time those writers are focused on local school issues." Greater scope As the amount of media resources devoted to back-to-school time has grown, so has the breadth of topics that now fall into the category. "The editors are looking for more than the hottest little gizmos or the latest lunch boxes for kids," says Gardner, who in past years represented the American Association of Orthodontists on stories dealing with helping kids with new braces adapt to school life. "They now are looking for something more substantive." "The focus is now in a number of areas," adds Levine, who noted the growth of the back-to-school category has brought a number of different reporters, including the tech beat, into the coverage mix. "It's in products, but it's also tips on getting organized and how you should study as a student." Levine says Office Depot has leveraged this increased focus on "news you can use" by bringing in family organization expert Maria Bailey as a spokeswoman to talk about the importance of being prepared for the beginning of the school year. But while what constitutes a back-to-school story might have changed, David Thalberg, SVP with New York-based Planned TV Arts, says the target for most of this coverage remains unchanged. "No matter what part of the country, it's still moms," he explains. "Most of the responsibility for getting kids ready for school still falls on them." Thalberg says his agency is currently putting together several school-related packages, including a chef offering tips on easy and nutritious lunches for kids, and a working mom's guide to back-to-school issues. "Our spokesperson for that is the head of an organization called Executive Moms, and a lot of the ideas will be quick and easy tips for working moms," he says. Timely pitches One thing that has traditionally helped back-to-school issues grab the media spotlight is the fact that it falls in August, which tends to be a slow period for news. That may not be the case this year with the Olympics and the presidential race, but Patti Holskin Stern, SVP of PR for Cronin & Co., says even major news events don't seem to have much of an impact on back-to-school coverage these days. "We're talking mostly with health and education journalists, as well as food writers, so we're targeting different reporters," says Stern. Stern, who previously handled media relations for Lee Jeans, says the apparel industry has long been aware of the importance of the beginning of the school year, and begins pitching long-lead teen and fashion magazines as early as May. But Thalberg says the big change is the sheer amount of companies now realizing they have products that can fit into a back-to-school-themed story. "The competition has gotten much tougher, so your pitch not only has to be timely, it has to be targeted and different," he says. "And with TV or print, it has to be something very visual." Levine says the window for back-to-school stories is also growing. Noting that the retailer kicked off its back-to-school ad and PR campaigns in mid-July, he says, "Part of that is because of regional differences. In New York, school still starts in September, but in Florida and other parts of the country, it starts in early August." Pitching... back to school
  • Look well beyond the education reporter for back-to-school stories as the category has expanded into the food, tech, lifestyle, and fashion sections
  • While coverage of back to school still tends to peak around Labor Day, many parts of the country begin the academic year in August, so stagger your back-to-school pitches in the various regions around the US
  • When it comes to back to school, it still tends to be all about moms, so focus many of your efforts on publications and programming that appeal to women

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