Corporate Case Study: Quinnipiac University applies the power of the poll

Once faced with poor admissions figures and few out-of-town applicants, the PR team at Quinnipiac University has focused on public surveys and media relations to help raise the grade.

Once faced with poor admissions figures and few out-of-town applicants, the PR team at Quinnipiac University has focused on public surveys and media relations to help raise the grade.

In the late 1980s, Quinnipiac University was floundering. Enrollment at the Hamden, CT institution was down 25%. Those students who did attend primarily came from within the state, and relatively few applicants had above-average grades and test scores. Today, however, the school is revitalized, thanks to a successful two-part strategy. First, the university focuses on offering high-quality bachelor's and master's degree programs in business, communications, education, health, and law. Second, the school developed a PR plan designed to get Quinnipiac in the news by conducting surveys and having faculty members featured in the media as expert analysts of current events. Quinnipiac now has over 5,400 full-time undergraduates, up from around 3,000 in 1991, and enrollment in the graduate school has risen from just 376 to more than 1,650 students in that same time. About 75% of freshmen are from out of state, compared to 25% in 1986. And about 10,000 students applied to enter the school this year, triple the amount from 10 years ago. The average SAT score for the 2004 freshman class is 1,133, compared to 1,083 in 1999. A lesson in public affairs "There's been a tremendous increase over the last decade in awareness of Quinnipiac by students and their parents, and it is resulting in the growing quality and number of our incoming students," says Joan Isaac-Mohr, VP and dean of admissions. "Public affairs is helping to reinforce our message. We're often talking with students, families, and guidance counselors because they hear about us from our Polling Institute." Indeed, the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, which regularly provides the media with survey results detailing the public's views on state and national elections and policies, is perhaps the school's most successful PR endeavor. The university began polling Connecticut residents in 1988, and eventually expanded the surveys to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida. More than 40 polls - including some national surveys - are conducted annually, up from 16 a decade ago. About 50 are planned for next year. "The polls are a drawing card that brings attention to the university," says John Morgan, Quinnipiac director of public relations. "Its important to get your name out far and wide so you can attract students from all over the country." Quinnipiac has students from 25 states and about a dozen countries. About 100 students - and some non-students - are paid $8 an hour to call a total of 1,000 residents for each survey. The surveys have credibility with the media because they are totally independent and precise, says Douglas Schwartz, director of the poll. "The key to getting the media to report the results is to be timely and accurate," he notes. "And if there is a breaking news story, we're on top of it." Pollsters, for instance, immediately began calling Connecticut residents after a corruption scandal broke involving Gov. John Rowland (R), who has since resigned. Other polls have gauged the public's response to a ban on smoking in Connecticut restaurants and bars, the possible outlawing of cells phones while driving, and the situation in Iraq. "The poll is well respected because it has been proven right so frequently," says Tim Goral, editor of University Business, a Norwalk, CT-based trade magazine. "Those initiatives get the school mentioned in the press and then more people start looking to the university as a source of valid information." Quinnipiac frequently polls in areas from which it hopes to attract students. Lynn Bushnell, VP of public affairs, compares the awareness generated by the surveys to the buzz some athletic teams create for their schools. "The poll has improved our name recognition over the years, but the academic research and public service components we gain are equally as important as the PR value," she says. "It gives added flavor to our political science, history, and communications programs." PR team keeps current Bushnell and Morgan are part of the three-person PR staff that also includes a writer who primarily contributes material to the school's website and magazines. While Bushnell won't disclose the amount of funds her department receives, she says it is well under 1% of the university's operating budget. And while the school's PR activity is done in-house, the PR team uses New York-based Rubenstein Associates to distribute the polls to the media. Pinpointing PR expenditures is difficult, she adds, because many measures are intertwined with academic-related activities. Such ventures include bringing in guest lecturers to address students and the public. Political and media figures such as Henry Kissinger, Dan Rather, Mary Matlin, and James Carville have spoken on campus, and television commentator George Stephanopoulos, ex-aide to former President Bill Clinton, is scheduled to visit Quinnipiac this fall. "Any press coverage of the lectures reaffirms the fact that we have strong programs in communications and political science," Bushnell notes. Having professors analyze current events on TV and in print is another major PR goal because it enhances the university's academic credibility, she says. Quinnipiac faculty within the last two months have spoken on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor and were interviewed for stories in USA Today and The Christian Science Monitor. Professors also have been on CNN and MSNBC, and quoted in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Quinnipiac in a recent week counted more than 150 mentions of the school by print and broadcast outlets. "I leave CNN on all day in my office and whenever news breaks I try to think of ways that I can get my key faculty members out there talking about the event," Morgan says. "That is more effective than sending reporters every little piece of information about the university that comes down the pike." Such salesmanship occurred in 1999 following the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO. Morgan, recalling that Quinnipiac had a law professor from Littleton who also was an expert on juvenile justice, contacted news outlets and was able to place the professor on NBC's Dateline that night. Because Quinnipiac must compete with bigger and more prestigious schools for attention, Morgan says it is essential to maintain a reputation with the media as a source of credible and quick information. To ensure faculty members also project professionalism while on television, Quinnipiac has a former TV reporter provide media training. Speakers are versed, for instance, on the types of clothing and colors that are most appealing to viewers and on the ways to create a positive impression when facing the camera. "It is tougher for a smaller school like Quinnipiac to be heard above the crowd, so the more attention they can get through the media, the more it will help them attract students," Goral says. Informing reporters Effectively courting the media also involves returning all reporters' calls and recommending other schools as sources if Quinnipiac does not have an expert to address a specific topic, says Morgan. "By being honest and helpful, the media will remember you for the future," he notes. Yet while Quinnipiac aggressively seeks publicity, Bushnell says the PR team is careful not to abuse its relationship with the media. Staffers, for instance, avoid flooding the market with news releases. "There's no question that Quinnipiac tries to be responsive," says Robert Frahm, education writer for The Hartford Courant. "Unlike some other schools, Quinnipiac doesn't send information every day. But I pay attention when materials from the university do arrive because they typically are useful." Additional Quinnipiac PR activities include measures that are intended to spotlight specific academic programs. The school, for instance, hosts annual events that honor leading journalists and lawyers. Besides drawing attention to Quinnipiac's curriculum, the gatherings attract professionals who are in position to offer internships and jobs to students, Bushnell says. "It is extremely important to know who our prospective students are, their interests, and where they are living," Bushnell adds. "So we work closely with our admissions and development departments to make sure all the PR activities make sense." PR contacts VP of public affairs Lynn Bushnell Director of PR John Morgan

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