MEDIA ROUNDUP: Test prep: a PR story for all seasons

Standardizing testing is more than a onetime college-entrance exam. It's a business that's fueling public policy - not to mention an array of PR possibilities.

Standardizing testing is more than a onetime college-entrance exam. It's a business that's fueling public policy - not to mention an array of PR possibilities.

Standardized tests, long a bane for most high school students and a source of anxiety for their parents, have over the past few years evolved into a huge public policy issue that's likely to grow even larger in the coming years. Thanks to government programs like No Child Left Behind, standardized testing - and the services to prepare kids to take those tests - now begins in elementary school, and final scores end up being about more than just bragging rights. Test results affect everything from classroom funding to real-estate values and, by publishing school-by-school results, media outlets play their part in fueling these issues. "Currently, much of the focus is on testing as it relates to state standards and federal legislation, particularly during the election season, when all candidates are offering varying views on educational agendas," says Carina Wong, communications director for Kaplan, Inc. Under the spotlight All this has triggered expanded media coverage on testing and test preparation - not to mention a wealth of related topics, such as choosing the right school and paying for undergraduate and advanced degrees. "I've seen an increase in the number of calls we get from the media, and we've certainly seen double-digit growth year over year in the amount of stories that are being written," says Wendy Odell Magus, PR director for Sylvan Learning Center. Robin Raskin, director of communications for the Princeton Review, says stories on testing, collegiate applications, and college financing tend to be covered by a variety of beats, depending on the angle. "Your bread-and-butter coverage is by the education reporter," she says. "But the more seasonal stories are written by personal finance reporters or others." Raskin often sees stories about how students can make their summers meaningful, and she says travel writers do how-to stories on visiting colleges. While ultimately it's the teen or young adult who's most affected by standardized tests, Raskin says PR pitches for test-prep services are primarily aimed at parents. "Parents' big concerns are, 'Is my kid going to get in?' and 'How much is this going to cost me?'" she says. "About 20% of the time, we'll talk to the teen magazines, but what they want to know is what celebrities are taking an SAT course. We happen to have an instructor who was a Miss America finalist. The youth market also loves numbers and lifestyle." Magus suggests that education reporters often get caught up in the public policy debate, creating an opportunity for other reporters to write about the impact these tests can have on families. "This is more of a family and lifestyle type of issue," she says, adding that part of her PR efforts are aimed at educating parents on how to help their child deal with the stress of taking a standardized test. More and more, standardized tests are becoming a part of adulthood as well, especially for professionals who opt to further their careers by attending law or business school. Suma CM - who works as VP and executive editor/ online content for Jungle Media, publishers of Jungle (formerly MBA Jungle) magazine - says she tries to offer advice on everything from taking the LSATs or GMATs to finding the right position after earning an advanced degree. Helpful hints Regardless of whether they're from a print, TV, radio, or internet outlet, most reporters writing about educational testing want tips-oriented information, Magus says. "They want helpful, actionable information that they can provide to people," she says. "So it's not necessarily trends or new product information as it is dealing with seasonal and everyday challenges that parents face in the educational arena." Both Raskin and Magus note that this is a category that should get a lot more media attention in 2004, not only because it's an election year, but also because of the addition of a third, essay section to the SAT I - changing the perfect score from 1,600 to 2,400. "That will give us some huge opportunities to talk about these issues to the media," says Raskin. ----- Pitching... educational testing
  • Understand the seasonality of standardized tests and the entire college application process, and then adjust your pitch accordingly.
  • Look beyond the education reporter and try to provide experts to family and lifestyle writers for stories on helping children of all ages prepare for a standardized test.
  • Media, including education and family reporters, always love concise news you can use, so try to build in a bulleted tips list into your pitch that can be pulled out and run as a sidebar.

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