Undergrads elusive targets for PR

Because college students look to a variety of media for their news, this sought-after demographic can be a tough one for PR pros to reach.

Because college students look to a variety of media for their news, this sought-after demographic can be a tough one for PR pros to reach.

College students represent an ideal demographic for PR pros, so the thinking goes. They're young, early adopters that drive trends like peer-to-peer music file sharing. And because they're tuned in and educated, they're more likely to end up on the higher end of the social ladder later in life. But becoming top of mind with this audience can be tricky because of the large number of places from which college students get their news. "They're hard to reach," says Nick DeNinno, VP and GM of National Lampoon Networks, a humor station piped into dorm rooms on 600 campuses nationwide. He adds that today's college students are accustomed to having information on demand, news delivered to them at the time and via the medium - whether print, broadcast, internet, or mobile - that's most convenient for them. Reaching student newspapers The main source of information for most students, however, tends to be the college newspaper. But many of these student publications have expanded their coverage and now run both national and campus news. "They are most interested in the top news stories of the day, as well as campus-related stories that we generate ourselves," says Kim Ossi, editor of Knight Ridder/Tribune's KRT Campus, a wire service for these outlets. Ossi says college-themed pieces include both product-centric stories on the best things to bring to your dorm room, as well as trend articles on the rise of on-campus knitting clubs. Despite the launch of new college-based offerings from the wire services, college students continue to generate most of their own content. Tom Rolnicki, executive director of the Associated Collegiate Press, says the overall quality of journalism at most of these outlets has improved dramatically over the past two decades. There is an increased willingness to take on the real-life issues facing students. Not only has there been a rise in sex-advice columns, Rolnicki says, but outlets like The Harvard Crimson also have done series on depression and the other mental-health problems among undergrads. Bob Zeitlinger, MD of New Jersey-based B to Z Communications, says most college reporters understand the role of PR and are willing to listen to a pitch. But he adds, "The major challenge is that the turnover is so great you can't use a standard database. You can find the number of the college newspaper, but you can't find the right editor or reporter to pitch a story." Zeitlinger adds that you can also pitch the local paper in university towns, though he cautions, "You have to wonder how often college students are reading the local paper from a town that most of these kids aren't from." College newspapers also face competition in some regions from publications like Campus Circle, which is distributed at LA-area universities and is positioned as a younger alternative to the area's alt-weeklies. Campus Circle VP Sean Bello says the publication tends to focus on short, concise editorial dealing with music and entertainment. But it has also done more issue-oriented stories on the rise of hard-liquor consumption on campus, as well as on how ex-soldiers who were recently in Iraq are adjusting to college life. While most undergrads actively look for bargains, Bello notes the perception of the starving student is no longer valid. "They definitely have the dollars for entertainment, especially movies, concerts, and CDs," he says. National look at trends There are currently no national college-themed print outlets, but there are some websites with a countrywide reach. Charu Suri, SAE with Allison & Partners, which represents CampusNetwork.com, says that many of those websites are interested in trend stories, especially if they're backed up by statistics. "Collegejournal.com, which is published by The Wall Street Journal, was very interested not only in writing about CampusNetwork.com, but also in publishing surveys from the site, such as what kind of jobs college seniors were getting and what kind of jobs they were seeking," she says. Suri also notes there's a certain fascination among mainstream reporters about what's happening on today's campuses. USA Today is putting together an upcoming feature on websites aimed at the university community, she adds. "Newspapers are interested in writing about college culture, especially if you can produce surveys about everything from students' views on the election to binge drinking," she says. -------- Pitching... college students
  • Timing is everything for college-themed product stories, so look to develop specific campaigns for students within your overall back-to-school program
  • College newspapers can be frustrating to target, but they remain the major source of news for most students. The quality of the journalism is up, so take the time to reach out to these publications
  • Don't ignore the general-interest outlets for college-themed stories. Long after they tossed out the blue books, mini-fridge, student ID, and other trappings, most reporters maintain a strong affinity for their college experience

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