Office Space: Three Things Communicators Can Learn from Startups
After three years as director of communications for a startup company, in late 2014 I traded a spacious open-plan office and perks such as yoga and unlimited vacation days for a newly created position at my alma mater.
Once the initial culture shock of working at a large institution wore off, I saw how my startup experience could benefit me as associate director of strategic communications for the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine. The fast-paced, results-driven culture I came from forced me to be resourceful, proactive, and bold. I had secured positive media placements in coveted print, online, and broadcast outlets such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, Forbes, Entrepreneur, and CNBC without the help of a public relations firm—and with no budget. I thought a university would be a cakewalk by comparison.
While the past 18 months haven't been as easy as I first imagined, I have learned to translate my experience in the startup world into communications strategies for higher education. Here are my top three tips:
Focus on faculty. Communications for startups is proactive by necessity. The company is new, the leadership team usually is not well known, and the product or service may still be in development. When pitching reporters, I first had to build trust. Higher education institutions, however, benefit from long-standing relationships and name recognition in the community, and the media generally view the university as a reliable source. Instead, my challenge has been to build trust with the faculty.
My first faculty meetings were eye-openers. The words communications and marketing were often greeted with skepticism or indifference. This was the opposite of my experience with startups, where marketing's importance was ingrained in every team member.
Trust-building became an integral part of my communications plan. I've met with professors individually, learning about their research and areas of expertise, and discussed how media relations could promote their work and the school.
Practice newsjacking. I'm always looking for opportunities to pitch the media on our subject-matter experts. One tactic that gets results is newsjacking: piggybacking on developing news in ways that add value to the story and draw attention to your content. I monitor the latest news and watch what's trending on Facebook and Twitter to determine whether a faculty member should weigh in on an issue. When I see a potential fit, I contact professors to gauge their interest in commenting or writing about a topic and then develop a strategy. Our professors have been featured in stories on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan; the hack of the people-seeking-affairs website Ashley Madison; and warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba. I learned important lessons from each example.
- Treat your institutionwide communications office as a media outlet. On a decentralized campus, these colleagues are crucial to maximizing your reach. At UCI, the benefit of leading communications for a unit is autonomy; the drawback is that your efforts can exist in a vacuum if you don't leverage the university's relationships and resources. When Flint, Michigan's lead-contaminated drinking water became national news in 2015, we showcased historian Andrew Highsmith, who had studied the Midwestern city for more than a decade and published a book on its infrastructural and political challenges. I engaged people on social media, but my pitches to reporters yielded no inquiries, so I partnered with the Office of Strategic Communications on a media advisory that generated an influx of interview requests. The result? An op-ed in the Los Angeles Timesand an interview with NPR's All Things Considered.
- Write the story yourself. When the Ashley Madison website was hacked in 2015, I knew that media studies expert Peter Krapp could offer a unique cybersecurity angle: He argued that the large number of .edu email addresses found in the site's database revealed people's lack of understanding about data security and online privacy. We pitched the idea to The Conversation US, an online journalistic outlet that publishes news commentary and analysis written by academics and researchers. Several news aggregators picked up Krapp's piece. Writing an article tied to a developing story can be as fruitful as being quoted in news outlets covering the issue. Highlighting a specific aspect of a topic or providing a distinctive take on it can spark media interest.
- Think local. When President Barack Obama announced in December 2014 that the U.S. would re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, I thought one of our Latin American studies experts, Anita Casavantes Bradford, could bring valuable perspective to the unfolding narrative. However, no national media outlets responded to my pitches, likely because the market was already flooded with reputable experts. I changed tactics and pitched a local angle to the nearby Orange County Register, which led to an article that quoted Casavantes. Unless you already have a relationship with a reporter at a national outlet, consider whether pitching such media is the best use of your resources.
Produce content worth sharing. Your communications strategy should include social media. I use these channels to publicize School of Humanities events, share updates, and tell stories that engage our constituents. This is another area where the institution can lend its weight and bring your unit's stories to a wider audience. You want to attract attention to your unit, and the university wants to share good content on its main social channels.
I propose social media content to the Office of Strategic Communications in much the same way that I pitch media-worthy stories. It's not a coincidence that our most popular posts have been shared by UCI's Facebook account, which has 82,000 fans compared with our 1,000. The April 2015 launch of our Shakespeare Center, for example, saw 20 times more impressions than a typical story.
I'm continually thinking about ways to gain news coverage and demonstrate the value of media relations. Upcoming projects include creating a faculty advisory council that will encourage sharing and engagement across departments. I also plan to coach professors to better work with journalists and build a personal brand. The more I can persuade professors to work with the media, the busier I will get, but I'm not worried. After managing startup communications on a shoestring, nothing scares me.
About the author(s)
Annabel Adams is associate director of strategic communications for the University of California, Irvine's School of Humanities.