Publications & Products
The Whirlwind of Media Relations Technology

By Dennis John Gaschen




From typewriters to fax machines to personal computers, campus public relations professionals have increasingly relied on advanced technology to do their jobs better. Dozens of new software programs for PR operations have hit the market in recent years. "There's no shortage of new technology that will help us do our jobs better," says Arthur Page, director of news services for the University at Buffalo. But with so much to keep up with, it's hard to know whether a communications department's technology is on the cutting edge or trailing behind.

The high-powered approaches aren't necessarily appropriate or cost-effective for an institution's particular needs. What's more important is to be aware of the available options and focus on the right tool for the job.

The Basics

Technology has reinvented the news release and has yielded enormous changes in the mechanics of what campuses send out, where they send it, and how they send it.

Public relations professionals began to move away from traditional news releases soon after reporters began to get bombarded by them via e-mail. Now they use exclusives, advances, pitches, and advisories. The goal is to capture reporters' interest and then direct them to the organization's Web site for the complete story.

To get your message across online, ask yourself how you'd describe the story to a friend on a 30-second elevator ride, says public relations consultant B.L. Ochman, president of whatsnextonline.com, in the May 2000 newsletter PR Professional. She also suggests studying the home page of the New York Times online, page one of the interactive Wall Street Journal, or Yahoo! News Alerts for examples of tight, forceful communications.

"They all manage to tell what each story is about in a sentence or two," Ochman says. "So can you."

Shorter and faster have become the standards, so it's no surprise that snail-mail delivery is out. Today's news directors rely on broadcast fax and e-mail to distribute their releases and use Web sites to feature longer versions, although the means vary depending on the public relations office's preference, technology, and budget.

To distribute releases by e-mail, many software programs allow you to develop specialized mailing groups you can summon with a single word; with a few keystrokes, you can create different groups for different needs. Still, Tim Underhill, electronic media coordinator at Ball State University, says that practitioners shouldn't be intimidated by the software's sophistication: "I sometimes just copy e-mail addresses and paste them in the blind-copy section of the e-mail message, rather than worrying about creating a new specialized group."

David Irons, a former public affairs officer at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, who now serves as vice president of AScribe, an newswire service that distributes news releases electronically via the Associate Press to major daily newspapers and via Internet channels to online services, Web portals and specialty sites, and major news-retrieval archives and distributes college and university news, advises sending e-mailed releases as ASCII text, not as attachments. Doing so displays the text directly in front of readers, reduces file size, avoids software incompatibility issues, and helps reassure recipients that the message does not contain a virus.

"Make sure that recipients see the news first," Irons adds. "Put contact information at the end and be sure it includes your e-mail address. Also, mention if photographs are available online and where users can find them."

Beyond the Basics

If you're already sending shorter news releases faster, you're on the right track-but don't stop there. The next step takes you to the World Wide Web. By creating an online news bureau, you ensure that your campus is accessible to the press 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This allows you to tell the extended story with additional details and gives reporters opportunities to pursue and develop an interesting story-without calling the campus during business hours. (For guidelines on creating a useful online resource for journalists, see "Is Your Web Site Media-Friendly?" in the September 2000 CURRENTS.)

In addition to featuring a searchable database of current and archived news releases and general factual data, your Web site can serve as a repository for a huge array of supporting materials, including the following:

Experts lists. Feature your campus's faculty members prominently as experts for reporters who are hunting for reliable, independent sources. Post your experts list on your site in a searchable format with the experts' contact information and hotlinks to their e-mail addresses.

Photos. Archive photos on the news-bureau Web site for easy retrieval. Many professionals recommend using digital images to supplement-but not replace-traditional film. "We still use film when we want a quality product, but our digital camera has saved us time and money," says Ball State's Underhill. "We used to send out as many as six photos with some of our releases, and each media outlet seemed to want a different format. Now we post photos on the Web that reporters can download in multiple formats."

Video. Whether in QuickTime, Real Video, or MPEG formats, moving pictures with sound help a news site come alive and lend it a sense of importance and urgency that straight text just can't convey. For example, Kansas State University has a separate video button in its online newsroom that enables reporters to watch clips on everything from acupuncture to road pavement testing methods.

While such videos are generally not broadcast quality, many pr professionals say it won't be long before institutions send video clips to local television stations via the Internet. The technology already exists, but the cost of uploading broadcast-quality video signals is prohibitive for most institutions, says Underhill. "The price can run as much as $16,000 in equipment for both the sender and receiver."

Audio. Some campuses include audio clips with news releases on their Web site. These recordings, which range in length from complete speeches to brief quotes, are intended to pitch the story for radio, TV, and online placement, and can be formatted as WAV or mp3 files for downloading. For example, the University at Buffalo included an MP3 file with its release of "Music of the Spears," a story on university researchers' findings about tunes tapped out on paleolithic stone tools.

Through its online news bureau, Kansas State University offered radio stations the chance to broadcast a faculty member's advice on the hot toys for Christmas 2000. K-State posted the audio file and notified its radio media contacts. Reporters could call a toll-free number to record the audio.

"We haven't had stations interested in downloading off the Internet yet," says Cheryl May, director of media relations and marketing for K-State. "Many don't have the capability, and it's still easier to just record it off the Radio Report Line."

Keeping an online newsroom updated is vital. Many media relations departments manage their news Web sites internally. They store the pages on their own hardware-often just an old PC or Mac-and use the information technology department as backup. That enables them to make instant changes to their sites' news content without relying on campus technical services. Keep in mind that this strategy requires all staff members to be familiar with the software, and at least one to know the hardware, however.

Taking it Further

If and when you have more time and resources to spend on your campus's media relations efforts, consider the following options:

Electronic media lists. New technology has made the task of compiling and updating media lists less time-consuming and subject to error. Media directories such as Bacon's (www.baconsinfo.com) and Burrelle's (www.burrelles.com) offer their lists on CD-ROMs from which you can import information into database management software such as MSAccess or FileMaker Pro and use the information to generate mailing labels, fax number lists for broadcast faxes, or e-mail address lists.

The annual subscription fees for these directory services typically include periodic updates, either on CD-ROM or via the Internet. Even so, notes Ball State's Underhill, "It still takes a lot of personal attention to keep your media list current."

Although the cost of purchasing an electronic media directory may seem prohibitive, weigh this initial investment against your long-term goals. If you're trying to reach primarily a regional audience, chances are you can create and update a media database economically on your own. But if you are seeking national attention, you may need assistance to reach the right media members-either by purchasing a directory to maintain your own media list or by contracting the entire distribution effort to an outside service. Institutions should review their publicity efforts from the past few years to determine how much money and time each of these options might save. They should also consider their future publicity needs in the context of other institutional initiatives, such as a campaign.

Professional distribution services. Most PR officers have probably wondered at some point whether professional services such as BusinessWire or PR Newswire would do a better job of distributing news releases. None of the communications managers interviewed used these services, however.

"The price tag for a national release is pretty steep," says Jeanne Norberg, director of university news services at Purdue University. "Plus, both services focus on the business side of news." That's not necessarily the best fit for an education institution.

And national distribution isn't always the goal. "Ninety-five percent of our undergraduate students come from within the state," says Buffalo's Page. "I needed to develop my own targeted statewide media list to reach them."

That doesn't mean outsourcing is out of the question, however. Consider one of the following more specialized services:

  • Ascribe (www.ascribe.org) began in 1998 as a project at the University of California. It now has about 500 member institutions in 37 states and reaches reporters in the United States and abroad who cover education, science, the environment, and other public-interest issues. An institutional membership costs $125 per year; members then pay fees ranging from $25 to $35 for each release distributed. "Ascribe's ability to get our news into major electronic news libraries, like Lexis-Nexis and Dow Jones Interactive, ensures that it's available to both journalists and members of the public interested in that topic long after the day we release it," says Tom Krattenmaker, director of news and information at Swarthmore College.
  • EurekAlert! (www.eurekalert.org), a service operated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, allows institutions to post releases on its Web site about research advances in science, medicine, and technology. Journalists who specialize in these topics use the site to track information from educational institutions, scientific journals, government agencies, nonprofits, and companies. Colleges and universities can subscribe to the service for an annual fee of $750 (for institutions with enrollments under 10,000) or $1,000 (for larger institutions). Subscribers may post an unlimited number of eligible news releases and lists of experts who are available for news interviews. Nonsubscribers may post releases for $100 each. "I especially like EurekAlert's embargo feature," says Page. When an institution posts a story for later release, reporters can conduct their own research and be ready to print the story when the release date arrives.
  • Campusrelease.com (www.campusrelease.com) sends an institution's releases to the print, broadcast, and Internet journalists the campus selects using the format the recipient prefers: fax, e-mail, or conventional mail on institutional letterhead. Members pay a one-time membership fee of $250 and then 99 cents for each copy of each release distributed. "I think they do a great job on hometown releases," says Debra Rubino, vice president of communications for Goucher College. "It saves our staff time, we get more placements, and we don't have to worry about the correct format."

Outside expert-list services. If you want to promote your campus experts to a wider group, consider using the major news services. ProfNet (www.profnet.com), a long-established service now owned by PR Newswire, allows members to respond to journalists' queries and list their experts in ProfNet's searchable database. ProfNet's recently revised pricing structure assesses an annual membership fee of $500 to $900 per institution, based on enrollment.

In 1997, Business Wire began offering a similar service called ExpertSource (www.businesswire.com/expertsource). Membership in BusinessWire, which costs $100 annually, covers the use of ExpertSource services.

Webcasting. Webcasts, which are effective tools for carrying live events to an Internet audience in real time, are perhaps the newest communications technology to gain popularity with corporate PR pros.

Unlike videoconferencing, which requires special viewing setups at centralized locations, Webcasts enable anyone with Internet access to view the live audio and video stream on his or her own computer screen. Further, viewers can send in questions and comments during the live event.

"Corporate clients have used interactive Webcasts to hold press conferences, unveil new construction, or respond to crises," says Melissa May, director of marketing for Digevent, a Webcast production firm.

"To date, campus communicators have not been early adopters of this technology," May says-most likely because of budget limitations and long approval processes. An hour-long live, video-based interactive Digevent Webcast, shot and produced in a studio, costs between $6,000 and $7,500. Remote shoots cost more.

Some Things Never Change

As technology advances, college and university communications officers will continue to explore new ways to reach media audiences.

As each technology matures, consider its value in light of lower costs, increased choices, and improved benefits. Meanwhile, adopt the innovations that suit your institution with an eye toward keeping systems flexible enough to integrate changes later.

About the Author Dennis John Gaschen

Dennis John Gaschen is a full-time faculty member in the College of Communications at California State University Fullerton. He is also a public relations consultant and freelance writer based in Orange, California.

 

Comments

 

Add a Comment

You must be logged in to comment . Your name and institution will show with your comment.