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Getting Schooled in PR: A Look at Higher Education Public Relations

Posted At: September 23, 2009
by Jaclyn White

When many students majoring in public relations think about post-graduate work, they imagine sexy jobs at PR agencies or big corporations, or saving the world with a nonprofit company. The option of working in higher education PR rarely occurs to them. But it should.

The work of a higher ed PR professional is similar to that of other PR professionals; they manage social networks, deal with media contacts, monitor the news and are constantly writing various materials. The differences for these professionals are the client and focus. Dealing with faculty, especially experts, requires unique understanding of their perspectives and workloads.

Brian Camen is the author of the blog The PR Practitioner and public relations coordinator of Thunderbird School of Global Management. He says that faculty members, who are the clients in higher ed PR, consider teaching students their top priority. Media relations is not as important to them as it is to the PR professional. However, Camen says that he has had wonderful experiences with his faculty, and emphasizes the importance of flexibility.

Camen also says that the focus in higher ed PR is different from the focus in agency PR. In his blog, he says, “Having many experts as your clients presents a time management issue for any higher education PR pro. With over 50 Ph.D.s on my faculty, prioritizing is a key.” So when something newsworthy happens that a faculty member can give expert insight into, it’s the PR professional’s job to know about it and get it to the media fast. Constantly having various faculty members in the news for their expert opinions is great publicity for the school.

Using social media is more important in the higher ed sector than most PR professionals would think. According to a recent study by the Society for New Communications Research, almost 90 percent of admissions boards for the schools surveyed believed that social media was “somewhat to very important for their future strategy.” PR staff members are generally responsible for creating and maintaining many of the social media tools for an institution.

Cathy Andreen, director of media relations at The University of Alabama, said that media tools as a whole have changed during her career. Andreen has been working in the higher ed PR field for more than 30 years, and says that there have been many changes in technology and communications since she entered the field. “One of the biggest changes is the 24-hour news cycle. We have to be much faster in our responses to reporters. We can no longer plan for a story that will land in the next morning’s newspaper or on the 10 p.m. news; stories can be posted online immediately and updated as more information becomes available. We can communicate instantly with students, faculty and staff and other constituents.”

Colleges and universities also have to engage in crisis management. For example, The University of Alabama recently had an H1N1 outbreak on campus, and the media relations department needed to effectively communicate what was being done to manage the situation. Andreen said her role in this crisis was to “work with senior UA administrators, the Student Health Center and others to assess the situation and communicate appropriate information to students, parents, faculty and staff. As media relations director, I also responded to numerous media calls from both local and national media.”

While media attention for higher education institutions is often positive, there are times that the media can be frustrating. This fall the Princeton Review released its list of the “Top Party Schools” in the country, naming Penn State University as number one. Bill Mahon, Penn State University’s vice president of University Relations, said that the rankings have no effect on the school. Mahon said that Penn State continues to improve as an academic institution every year, and that the Princeton Review’s list is merely a popularity test. However, he did say, “What the ranking does reveal for me is that we have a lot of students and they are enthusiastic supporters of Penn State.”

Mahon has been working in higher ed PR for more than 25 years and says that he loves his job. “I can’t believe I get paid to be around tens of thousands of energetic young people and thousands of fascinating faculty who are working on research that will save lives and make the world a better place. This is a dream job.”

As in any PR field, internal and external communications are crucial in higher ed PR. Camen says that at a higher education institution you are constantly writing for different audiences. Parents, students, faculty and alumni all have different views and different expectations for communication.

Overall, working in higher ed PR does not differ much from working in other areas of PR, but it is an industry that both new and current professionals should consider. Like Camen says, it’s not a flashy industry, but it can be extremely rewarding. “Institutions don’t put out fluff or spam… They help promote thought leadership,” said Camen on his blog.

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