The Future of Public Relations in Higher Ed

Pile of newspapers

What's next for our stories?

The field of public relations is in flux. Technology makes it easier for us to directly connect with our audiences. The barriers to creating content types beyond the press release are lower than ever before. And the social web has redefined everything we thought we knew about communication.

Given this landscape, what is the role of a higher ed media relations professional in the 21st century? I think these changes indicate that the power to tell our stories rests in our hands.

Yes, there is still a need for press coverage and relationships with the media, but the nature of those relationships is changing and the content they are built around is shifting. The traditional press release is not enough anymore, and we can’t let it become a crutch. Innovation is difficult, but essential.

What else should we be thinking about as we consider these questions? Meet Content reached out to four higher ed professionals who have extensive experience creating and managing public relations content on the web and got their take.

Telling Our Story

1. Traditionally, the role of PR/media relations offices is to get external media to tell the university’s story. Should these offices take brand storytelling into their own hands? What are the pros and cons of this approach?

Andrew Careaga, Director of Communications, Missouri University of Science and Technology (@andrewcareaga): Given the state of the news media these days, colleges and universities don’t have much choice but to take storytelling into their own hands. There are fewer traditional media outlets to cover our institutions, and fewer journalists who cover higher education – fewer still who cover academic research. Additionally, the internet has made it so much easier to directly and economically connect with the audiences who care about us.

If there’s one disadvantage to bypassing mainstream media to communicate more directly to our audience, it’s that we no longer get that third-party validation that comes when some big news organization carries our story. And some key audiences, like trustees, are more impressed when The New York Times or CBS Evening News talks about us than when we talk about ourselves.

The pros are that if you know you have a great story, you don’t have to wait for someone else to pick it up. – Tracy Mueller

Tracy Mueller, Managing Editor and Public Relations Specialist, University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business (@tracymueller): The pros are that if you know you have a great story, you don’t have to wait for someone else to pick it up. You can establish that direct relationship with your readers. This approach also creates room for you to tell smaller but still important or interesting or just fun stories that might not catch the interest of the media, but that your audience appreciates.

For instance, our most popular online story during the last year was a Valentine’s Day feature called “Longhorn Love Stories” and it featured 11 little stories of couples who met at McCombs. No media outlet ever would have run this, yet our readers responded to it.

The cons are that it is certainly more time intensive, and it can create the expectation that you will “cover” everyone’s story/event/brown bag meeting/promotion. (On that note, I highly recommend creating some formal editorial guidelines to keep you on track and provide rationale for saying ‘No.’)

Lori Packer, Web Editor, University of Rochester (@LoriPA): With increasing attacks on public spending for research and increased questioning about the value of pursuing a college education at all, I’d argue it is more incumbent upon us than ever to get our own stories out there to the audiences that care about us the most: our alumni; our current students, faculty, and staff; the parents and families of our students and alumni; our local community.

Revisiting the Press Release

2. Relatedly, PR/media relations content is, for the most part, anchored around the press release. Is this model sustainable? Should PR/media relations professionals reevaluate their core content types along with their target audience. If so, what factors should they consider?

Careaga: Traditionally, press releases are aimed at a single audience — journalists — and are designed to persuade them that our subjects, events or other “news” are worthy of coverage. But for years now, smaller news organizations have been using press releases as news verbatim. So we shouldn’t be writing solely for journalists anyway. We should write them for a more general audience.

If, however, our goal is to communicate with segmented audiences — prospective students, current students, alumni, parents and the like — then we should definitely reevaluate our content types and how we present the stories. Depending on the audience, a 90-second video may be more appropriate than a press release, or a lengthy article in the alumni magazine.

When writing a press release, keep in mind its dual role as a destination on the web. – Lori Packer

Packer: First, when writing a press release, keep in mind its dual role as a destination on the web. Don’t bury the lede. Write a “journalistic” headline, not an institutional headline. Always include art that helps tell the story visually. Always think of what additional information a person reading this would want while reading this story. Link to the original study, the professor’s blog or lab website, previous stories about the same research. And good news: this approach should also help you succeed with your traditional media relations goals, too! [Editor’s note: See more tips in the slides from Packer’s Penn State Web Conference presentation, “Rethinking the Humble Press Release.”]

Mueller: It’s sexy to hate press releases, but I think they’re still a valid tool. We’re lucky in higher ed in that we’re reputable institutions, so if we use press releases correctly, they can still get the job done. Distributing relevant, truly newsworthy releases to targeted media lists is an efficient method of getting your news in front of journalists. Unleashing purely self-serving brochure copy pretending to be news on every reporter at any outlet who covers any topic is an efficient method of getting on the spam list.

That being said, PR/media relations shouldn’t begin and end with the press release. Part of effective media relations is providing value to the reporter. So maybe it’s a list of faculty experts who can comment on a current event. Maybe it’s posting audio or video online of your broadcast-ready professors so that a journalist can see who will be a quality interview. Maybe it’s curating a Twitter list of all of your institution’s accounts so that the local higher ed beat reporter can easily check in with multiple units at once. Even small things, like on our news site, we always link a faculty member’s name to his or her directory page so that it’s easy for the reader to contact them for follow-up.

Communicators need to keep in mind that the definition of media has broadened. – Joe Bonner

Joe Bonner, Director of Communications and Public Affairs, Rockefeller University (@bonnerj): I think there is still a need for writing and issuing a press release, but I think communicators need to keep in mind that the definition of media has broadened. At Rockefeller, we stopped writing “press releases” a few years ago. We found that the time invested in writing a detailed release for the media — centered around a paper published in a high impact journal — wasn’t the best use of our time, and we were missing other important stories. We now write shorter stories about a broader range of topics. It’s easier to adapt these into something to send out as a press release, rather than the other way around.

And while, a press release can be useful, I’ve also had success with a concise email message with bullet points highlighting the important findings and what the implications are. I think the bottom line is to tailor your message and really think about who in the media you want to target and consider the best delivery method.

PR Gets Social

3. How could PR/media relations professionals take better advantage of the social web to advance institutional communications and brand awareness goals?

Through monitoring the discussions happening on the social web… we can learn more about what our audiences care about. – Andrew Careaga

Careaga: We shouldn’t look at the social web as merely a megaphone for our institutional communication. It is more than merely a broadcast medium. It is a monitoring medium, and through monitoring the discussions happening on the social web — about our institutions, our people, the areas of research and expertise we promote, higher education in general — we can learn more about what our audiences care about.

Packer: I would argue that at this point in time you kinda have to be using Twitter as an individual if you are in any way involved in public or media relations. Sorry, but you just have to. If not, you are missing countless opportunities to connect with both the media professionals you need to approach in your traditional media relations efforts and the members of your own audiences.

Mueller: I think we can do a better job of showing personality rather than just being Very Important Serious Official Institutions all the time. I’d like to see more strategy and some focused campaigns, rather than just streams of content. I also think we can do a better job of using social web tools from a more utilitarian standpoint. For instance, our office has talked about creating a set on Flickr that contains high-resolution images that reporters can download if they’re covering something related to us. And I’m sure there is something brilliant I could be doing with Twitter Favorites that I haven’t thought of.

What’s your take on the future of PR content in higher ed?

Photo by perspective / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »


  1. I cant tell you guys how refreshing this post was. I think this is what we are on the cusp of and trying to get there. Also, Lori I loved those slides they are amazing.

  2. Thanks for this post, Georgy. It’s so valuable (and fascinating!) to see how others approach change in this area. We all generate press releases, but as soon as those press releases were published to the Web eight or ten years ago, they stopped serving just one function and one audience. I love Joe’s approach at Rockefeller; that’s a pretty dramatic re-thinking how and what write, but I think it makes sense.

    PS — thanks, Matt!

  3. David Wenger says:

    Thanks for including Tracy Mueller, who is always doing something fresh and innovative in her work for OPEN magazine and McCombs TODAY.

  4. Thanks! This was a great read. I’m happy to report that we just in the past month created a Flickr set of our high-res photos for reporters and others to use. I’d be interested in seeing more tactics that reflect the discussion here if anybody wants to share.

    This is also highly valuable to share with my superiors and explain that we aren’t just a news release mill anymore. :)

  5. “How could PR/media relations professionals take better advantage of the social web to advance institutional communications and brand awareness goals?”

    It’s also worth knowing when and how to get the school brand out of the way. P.R./news offices now have to be advisers as much as promoters — there is enough time to tell every story, but the work of doing so has to devolve to the departmental, faculty, and student level.

    In the main communications office, that means having prominent, concise, and clear best practices and hosting events — like lunches — for communications staff school-wide to share their ideas. For the comm. office’s relationship with students, that means nurturing pride in students’ own work as potential public content — getting them to share and reciprocate. For alumni, that may mean integrating roles in the communications office and development office…news of a major research breakthrough shouldn’t need to wait for the next alumni magazine or capital campaign.

  6. This is so good. I’ve been talking about this problem recently and I think this is a great article to help me further this discussion with my manager. Thank you!

  7. Hello!

    Thank you for your extremely insightful post. I am a PR major and looking into Higher Education Communications after I graduate. currently writing my blog about the work I am doing with my senior honors thesis. I am assessing student perspectives of university administrators. I believe that many of the influences and topics that impact impressions and opinions of university are the same for how students feel about the administrators. Students may not be aware of press releases, but they’ll focus on what is being said on Twitter. It’s so interesting how the culture of the field has changed, yet stayed the same.

    Thank you for your post! It’s been a great way to learn more about the role of PR in Higher Education.

What do you think?