Are Your Professors Ready for Their Close-Up?

Prepare faculty experts for the media spotlight with an in-house training program

By Eric Eckert

Are Your Professors Ready for Their Close-Up?

The headlines above are examples of a valuable partnership between Baylor University's Media Communications team and its faculty members. Our campaign to build a network of responsive, media-trained faculty experts has gained news coverage for their research and attracted attention to our Texas institution and its contributions to society.

Many higher education institutions offer a faculty experts directory on their website, but providing such a resource doesn't mean reporters will use it. Building a program that identifies, trains, and promotes faculty experts is key to cultivating good relationships with the media and garnering news coverage that helps advance the university and its research.

In the past four years, Baylor's Media Communications team has shifted financial and human resources to invest in recruiting and training faculty experts. As part of this campaign, we have drawn more than 60 professors into the program. Their involvement has helped increase the institution's news coverage. Since 2014, we've realized more than $11 million worth of earned media for our academics and their research, according to analytics from Cision, the public relations software our office uses. Here are five steps to help you develop an effective faculty experts program for your institution:

1. Identify faculty whose research and expertise areas are relatable. 

Some research simply doesn't translate well beyond an academic journal. As a communications professional, you understand what makes a good news story. Trust your instincts and news judgment. Keep your institution's mission and academic strengths in mind, and pinpoint professors who are producing research that can be made relevant to people's lives. It's OK to be selective. We've had success with faculty members who study water quality, the American religious landscape, presidential rhetoric, smartphone addiction, holiday grief, and gender bias in Hollywood. The management department in Baylor's Hankamer School of Business, for instance, is well represented in our experts database because its faculty members examine topics important to the workplace and careers—issues ranging from work-life balance and how workday breaks can enhance productivity to business ethics and how to manage innovators. 

Assistant Director of Media Communications for Faculty Development Eric Eckert, center, offers advice to a Baylor University staff member during an on-camera media training session at the Texas institution while Director of Media Communications Tonya Hudson, right, adjusts the camera shot.

Assistant Director of Media Communications for Faculty Development Eric Eckert, center, offers advice to a Baylor University staff member during an on-camera media training session at the Texas institution while Director of Media Communications Tonya Hudson, right, adjusts the camera shot.
2. Pursue quality over quantity.

My experience developing a faculty experts program began in 2004, when I was tasked with bolstering a similar effort at another university. I tried to recruit as many professors as possible. The more faculty experts who could talk to the media, the better—or so I thought. I added the names and biographies of anyone who was interested to the directory—no official training required, no outlining of expectations. The list grew, and I believed this was the right approach.

I was wrong. Working with the media isn't for everyone. Many faculty members believe that it's a good idea in theory, but when an interview opportunity arises, some don't follow through for a variety of reasons. Such situations can damage your office's relationship with the media. It's best to provide reporters with faculty experts who are media-trained and responsive to interview requests.

When starting a faculty experts program, approach faculty members who already have media experience. These professors rarely refuse an interview, are comfortable speaking with reporters, and likely have cultivated relationships with journalists. Ask them to participate in the program you're building, and consult with them as it progresses. They can act as advocates and ambassadors.

Next, seek active researchers who are publishing or studying interesting topics worth sharing. Set up a meeting. Build rapport. Share your vision for the program. Explain how it can help gain attention for their work. Gauge their interest. If they're ready to participate, sign them up for a media training session.

Finally, look for faculty members who have published interesting research in recent years. They may not have something in progress at the moment, but their previous work likely remains relevant and is prime for repackaging and repurposing. Remember: Past research is new to anyone seeing it for the first time.

3. Prepare faculty members to work with journalists.

Reporters want people who will help them tell stories. Setting up an interview with a faculty member who is uncomfortable sharing her expertise or explaining his research is risky. A reporter who has a bad experience is unlikely to contact your institution's communications office again. Faculty members who feel uneasy or pessimistic about a media encounter or their performance may dodge future interview requests. Everyone benefits when reporters work with experts who are comfortable being interviewed and who understand the editorial process.

The Media Communications team hosts two classroom trainings each year—one in the fall and one in the spring. We discuss our office's mission and the importance of partnering with faculty experts. We emphasize the fast pace of the news cycle and outline expectations, such as getting a quick yes or no response when we contact a professor with a media request. We analyze the differences between on-camera, email, phone, and online or Skype interviews by providing video and audio examples. We also share tips for working with reporters, such as how to use bridging statements to stay on message while responding to questions.

Later, at an on-camera training session, individual faculty members practice what they learned in the classroom setting. We conduct simulated TV interviews using studio lights, backdrops, and microphones. Our team of four staff members—all former journalists—serve as the reporters. We offer feedback and coach professors on interview techniques. Each member of our team has gone through the training, which we developed with a consultant.

We strive to make the training experience challenging and realistic yet encouraging. While we try to pull our faculty members off-topic and certainly test them, we avoid confrontational and gotcha-type questions. Our goal is to help them see the value in knowing how to work with the media and become active participants in our program.

Faculty members, even those who have had previous media training, find these sessions worthwhile. They report being better able to focus during interviews and effectively share their research findings and other important points. We initially tested our curriculum and training with a group of media-savvy professors, including James Roberts, who studies consumer behavior and technology addiction at Baylor's business school. He gave the training a positive review, stating that it helped him fine-tune his talking points and offered useful strategies for staying on topic.

Lakia Scott, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in Baylor’s School of Education, speaks with a reporter from radio station KWBU about the roots and future of historically black colleges and universities.

Lakia Scott, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction in Baylor's School of Education, speaks with a reporter from radio station KWBU about the roots and future of historically black colleges and universities.
4. Share faculty successes.

Our objective is to foster a mutually beneficial relationship with our faculty experts. We reward their media efforts by communicating the results to the university's audiences. A daily email highlighting media coverage of Baylor and its people goes out to our president, board members, administrators, deans, department chairs, and other stakeholders. The message includes a section with links to news stories that feature faculty experts. Our leaders regularly see how we are working with faculty members to raise the university's profile. When professors who aren't involved with the program see such outcomes, they often inquire about the next media training session.

We also promote faculty experts by working with campus partners. The fall 2017 issue of Baylor Magazine featured four professors who have earned headlines for their work on issues like climate change and food insecurity. Baylor Proud, the university's blog, showcases a different faculty expert each month in an email to more than 150,000 subscribers.

We demonstrate our commitment to this program by investing in tools that spread awareness of our researchers' work. In addition to the time we devote to training and promoting our faculty members, in 2017 our office started using ExpertFile, a content marketing platform that includes the capability to create dynamic faculty profiles that expose our professors to a wider audience of journalists. We can also manage media inquiries through the platform. The software has reduced the time we spend updating faculty profiles. We can quickly add photos, videos, and links to an expert's media hits and create faculty spotlights—a feature that helps us rapidly promote a professor's expertise to take advantage of breaking news. In September 2017, we created a spotlight to distribute a Baylor law professor's comments on President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw authorization for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. A media inquiry received through ExpertFile resulted in a guest appearance on a nationally syndicated radio program in Canada.

Baylor marketing professor James Roberts (left) examines data with consumers for a November 2015 segment on ABC’s Good Morning America.

Baylor marketing professor James Roberts (left) examines data with consumers for a November 2015 segment on ABC's Good Morning America.
5. Deliver results.

We've asked for faculty members' help. They've said yes. It's up to us to secure media opportunities for them. We mine journalists' queries, craft pitches to reporters, and write news articles to attract attention to our faculty experts.

When we field inquiries through an online community such as ProfNet, we consider our experts first. We look for opportunities to insert our professors into national and international media conversations because we know they will be prepared and responsive. When our editorial team develops stories, we begin with our list of experts. As Halloween 2017 approached, for instance, we pitched the work of James Kendrick, an associate professor of film and digital media who is an authority on horror films (and one of the first academics to volunteer for the faculty experts program). A Baylor news release featuring Kendrick explaining why people like to be scared at the movies led to headlines in local and national media outlets.

As the media communications team has focused on growing the faculty experts program, we've seen an increase in media inquiries, greater response from reporters to our story pitches, and more news stories featuring Baylor researchers. Our faculty members' enthusiasm and confidence have been integral to that success.

The media have always relied on experts. It's our job to position our faculty members to share their knowledge with a global audience.

About the Author

Eric Eckert is assistant director of media communications for faculty development at Baylor University in Texas.