In a major story on the dearth of higher education beat reporters at major newspapers, The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that the coverage of colleges and universities has often been reduced to being a part of the K-12 reporter's beat.
Even with that decline - which occurs in only some markets - there is still opportunity to pitch higher education stories to the local media.
"A lot of what we do involves targeting specialty reporters who don't cover higher ed, but for whom we can provide story ideas," notes Gregory Trevor, senior director of media relations at Rutgers University. "Papers have science reporters, for instance, and we can talk to them about what we do as an institution."
Despite having fewer higher ed reporters, the media has figured out one definite way to cover colleges and universities: stories - in some cases, special editions - devoted to school rankings. "It seems as if every year someone is coming out with a new ranking," says Stanton Crenshaw Communications VP George Sopko. "PR cannot directly influence the rankings, [but] can influence the people [influencing] the rankings."
The main targets of any institution's outreach are prospective students, but Claire Wagner, public information office director at Miami University in Oxford, OH, stresses that other targets exist. "We're looking to get coverage for all [our] accomplishments and research because we're a public university, and we're trying to reach everybody," she says.
Many universities find it easy to obtain coverage by offering professors as experts on breaking news. But Barry Wanger, president of Newton, MA-based Wanger Associates, notes, "You're only getting one line in a roundup story, so your time might be better spent developing feature stories about the work someone at the school is doing."
Unlike other media categories, higher ed coverage has not really migrated online. But, with many high school students using the Web, Debra Holtz, media relations director at Saint Mary's College of California, says she's had success reaching prospective applicants directly through the school Web site. "We keep our homepage filled with interesting stories," she adds.
Newsmaker Group Public Relations president Lynn Schwartz adds that schools now include parents in their media strategies.
"Many of them are 'helicopter parents,'" she says, "always hovering around, and most schools realize they have a lot of say in what their child decides to do."
Pitching... higher education
- You can't really sway the annual rankings of colleges and universities, but you can leverage the media interest in them by highlighting a school's position or the specific programs that get cited in these surveys
- Don't forget that parents play a huge role in what school their child decides to attend. So, develop separate story ideas aimed at them, which highlight not just the academics but also the safety of a college or university
- Due to the declining number of dedicated higher ed reporters, all college and university PR pros have to expand their reach to use other sections and beats