University PR that makes the grade

With so many different goals and target audiences, university PR can be a challenge

Universities and colleges have to attract students, faculty, and money. So, many schools have developed communications teams that can deliver key messages to reach internal and external audiences across many channels.

“Higher education is one of the most competitive industries in the country [because of] the number and diversity of... institutions,” says Linda Thrane, VP for public affairs at Rice University. “We're all competing for students, faculty, philanthropic resources, and legislative support.”

Maria Terrone, AVP for communications at Queens College (QC) in New York, says PR has become important for public schools as state funding has decreased. “To [raise money] you need to influence public opinion,” she says. “Communications... get the message out to people... who are in a position to give back.”

In 2003, QC's president established an office of communications with media relations, video production, marketing, and advertising. “There's great advantage in centralizing communications,” says Terrone, who has a staff of 21, six of which are full-time.

Ursuline College, a small, Catholic women's school in Cleveland, has a three-person communications team (one is part-time) that reaches out to the general public, prospective students, parents, guidance counselors, donors, alumni, media, and sponsors.

“[Audiences] are bombarded with messages constantly, so if we're not using PR in a sophisticated way, we're going to be left by the wayside,” explains Angela DelPrete, director of marketing.

Getting media coverage requires time, creativity, and persistence. At Rice, a media relations team of six (out of 40 communications employees total) has helped increase media hits six-fold since January 2007 by expanding beats across the entire campus.

Maintaining relationships with local media is a priority at Ursuline, and DelPrete says she's broadening outreach. For example, the team is pitching healthcare topics that are tied to the school's nursing program. PR students also help generate stories for the alumni magazine by acting as reporters, which DelPrete says has helped generate fresh, compelling content and develop new relationships.

Ursuline got a lot of coverage in 2006 when its president lived in a dorm to gain better understanding of students. At the end of this semester the president will move into a dorm again, and the insight gathered about students will help DelPrete and her team better communicate with that audience.

QC produces a number of short videos, including a campus tour, which are posted online. Terrone says “multimedia has really exploded in the last year,” noting that her team creates content for plasma boards on campus and on a nearby highway. The school is also considering social media as a tool.

Rice has grown Web site traffic by posting fresh stories daily and by linking information to “little blurbs” that act as teasers. For example, a blurb about a biodiesel study is linked to a news release, the faculty site, the study itself, and a story. “It helps snag people's attention for what might otherwise be considered another boring academic story,” Thrane says.

Ursuline is in the process of updating its Web site to include new features such as blogs and virtual tours. DelPrete also wants to make current students available for online contact for prospective students, and her team began creating videos about the school for use on the Web site, as well as YouTube and iTunes U.

Rice's Thrane believes integrated communications programs are essential for all colleges and universities. “PR strategy [should] include the Web site and all publications and creative services on campus,” she says. “Our media relations people get stories and think about what they can do across all channels. It all works together to... raise visibility.”

Technique tips

Pitch media creatively, persistently

Look for stories throughout the campus

Repurpose content across multiple channels

Let Web site content become outdated

Neglect chances to create and post videos

Work in silos; share information across communications teams

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