The higher ed conference season is in full-swing, and at the end of April Danielle and I traveled to Washington, D.C. for the PRSA Counselors to Higher Education Senior Summit. Our participation with this event has steadily grown over the past few years, and this year not only was readMedia a presenting sponsor, but I was also fortunate to be asked to present one of the plenary sessions. My topic: “Developing a Social Content Strategy: Finding the right mix of earned, owned and paid media.”
The conference began on Wednesday afternoon with media tours at NPR, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and the Washington Post. I joined the NPR tour (see my quick impression of it in this video) and got to see where NPR Music’s “Tiny Desk” concert series is recorded, as well as look in on Robert Siegel recording promos for that evening’s All Things Considered. On Wednesday evening, Swarthmore president Dr. Rebecca Chopp presented the Patrick Jackson lecture and outlined her views on how liberal arts education, and higher education in general, provides a critical avenue for community discussion and dialogue.
I enjoy the Senior Summit each year mostly because it’s a small and intimate gathering. With about 100 attendees, you never feel overwhelmed and it’s easy to meet and network with others and learn about how they are approaching communications challenges on their respective campuses. Plus, the sessions and speakers are top-notch. The conference started in earnest on Thursday with a presentation from Michael Smart, former national news director at Brigham Young University. Michael’s presentation on innovative ways for pitching media and getting coverage for campus stories was energizing, informative and funny! It’s always great when you can include a BYU Mathletes rap video in your presentation. Michael set the tone for a day filled with solid presentations on branding, building better online newsrooms, the impact of athletics on university reputation, and selling the ROI of communications across campus.
My presentation kicked off the Friday morning sessions: you can view my slides below. The day also included Lori Doyle’s “Habits of Highly Effective PR Professionals” as well as a national media panel of higher education reporters and a presentation from University at Buffalo’s Joe Brennan on campus emergency communication.
If you’re a senior leader in higher education and not currently involved with the PRSA CHE organization, I’d highly recommend getting involved. The group is welcoming, talented and a wealth of knowledge on what’s effective in higher education communications. Click here to learn more about the section.
The readMedia team has a busy travel schedule lined up for 2012. In addition to sending our Community Manager, Danielle Valenti, on multi-campus tours to visit our clients all over the country, we’ll also be speaking at or attending many higher ed conferences this year. Here’s a rundown of where we’ll be and our take on some of our favorite conferences and events:
February 6-7 | Washington, DC
An ideal conference for mid-career media relations professionals, this conference features several panel discussions on best practices in pitching media and developing media relations plans. It’s a smaller, more intimate event, usually with less than 150 attendees. Popular higher ed reporters from national trade publications like InsideHigherEd and The Chronicle are usually on hand to offer critiques and advice to media relations professionals hoping to get coverage for their institution.
March 11-14 | San Francisco, Calif.
The National Council for Marketing & Public Relations is a group dedicated to community and technical colleges. Their annual national conference brings together professionals for sessions on social media, web design, brand management, crisis communications, internal communications and enrollment marketing. This year, readMedia will be exhibiting at the conference but also sponsoring a special evening event hosted by District 6.
March 14-17 | Hershey, Penn.
CUPRAP is a professional organization of communicators within higher ed, typically from Pennsylvania institutions. The annual conference features presentations and case studies from other colleges, as well as the annual CUPPIE awards recognizing excellence in PR and marketing campaigns and tactics. With dozens of client schools in Pennsylvania, readMedia has attended CUPRAP for many years, and the event is a great opportunity for us to share new product enhancements and best practices with our customers.
April 25-27 | Washington, DC
The PRSA Counselors to Higher Ed section puts together an outstanding senior summit each year. The attendees are primarily chief communications officers at their institutions with decades upon decades of expertise and ingenuity among them. Sessions are typically high-level and strategic, and range from managing a president’s expectations to developing solid institution-wide communications plans. The conference includes optional media tours to several DC-area outlets like the Associated Press, USA Today, Chronicle of Higher Ed, NPR, and others. The most powerful part of the event by far is the opportunity to network and learn from other attendees. I will be presenting at this year’s senior summit on balancing earned, owned, and paid media strategies within a communications plan.
June 11-12 | State College, Penn.
This will be my first year attending PSU Web, a conference hosted by Penn State but open to attendees from any institution. I’ll be presenting “Brand-building in Facebook WITHOUT the Fan Page”, and discussing strategies our clients have found successful for reaching broader audiences on Facebook.
June 13-15 | Syracuse, NY
With a large majority of the SUNY institutions as readMedia clients, this is a must-attend event for us! The conference not only attracts marketing and communications professionals, but also those in advancement, development, fundraising, and alumni relations. The SUNY Chancellor usually gives a keynote address, and the presentations and sessions are organized into themes and tracks that offer something for everyone, regardless of role. There are also scholarships available for first-time attendees who are new to their roles within SUNY.
June 27-29 | Washington, DC
Formerly known as the Keith Moore Conference, this event is co-produced by CIC and AASCU. It’s a large conference that features several media panels comprised of reporters and editors from web media, national news programs, niche science and technology outlets, national newspapers and magazines, and local media properties. Attendees have the opportunity to directly ask members of the media for advice on how to pitch and what types of stories they are likely to cover. Additionally, several presentations involve case studies from communicators discussing specific media relations and social media strategies that were effective at their institution.
July 30 – Aug 1 | Boston, Mass.
It’s tough to say no to a conference in Boston. With so many colleges in the area, it’s a higher ed epicenter. I spoke at the eduWeb conference in 2010, but skipped it last year. It’s a conference for those in higher ed who deal with online strategy, digital marketing and web content. We’re tentatively planning to attend this year and combine it with some trips to visit our Boston-area clients.
October 7-10 | Milwaukee, Wisc.
We’ve still never attended a HighEdWeb, but it’s impossible to talk with a past attendees and not hear them gush about how amazing the conference is. Content ranges from social media to web and app development to content strategy to design. The conference has grown dramatically over the past few years and the organizers are incredibly open about incorporating ideas from attendees into the format and structure. We’re very much hoping that readMedia can make it to HighEdWeb this year!
November 11-14 | New Orleans, La.
AMA HigherEd is one of the largest conferences we attend — and last year’s event in Chicago almost felt too large at 900 attendees (okay not almost — it was). There’s a vast matrix of sessions to attend (but get there early, most all end up being standing room only) and typically the keynotes from university presidents are very solid. This conference is much more focused on pure marketing and branding. Social media plays a big role, and there are typically a lot of case study sessions that break down marketing campaigns and tactics from various institutions. The speakers and institutions featured can seem a bit repetitive if you go every year and are definitely weighted more toward larger institutions, but if you can navigate the conference itself there’s some good content to learn from. Here’s my recap of the 2011 AMA Higher Ed event for HigherEdLive.
In addition to the above list, we’re also considering the CASE Social Media and Community Conference in Chicago in April, as well as the CASE Institute Marketing and Branding in San Francisco in April, and the CASE Institute for Senior Marketing & Communications Professionals (typically in October). We’re always looking for opportunities to meet with current and potential clients at higher ed conferences and events, and learn more about what’s happening in the world of higher ed marketing, PR, media relations, and social media. If there are events missing from our list that we should know about, add them in the comments!
Sometimes the best laid plans go awry.
For the past year, I’ve been interviewing top communicators in higher education as part of “Leadership Lessons“, a monthly live webcast series in partnership with PRSA Counselors to Higher Education. It’s been great fun and I’ve met fantastic professionals from colleges large and small, and gotten to talk with them about topics from crisis communications to branding to social media and more.
So it’s perhaps ironic that despite all the planning I do ahead of time to prepare these webcast, my interview with University of Chicago’s Julie Peterson, on the topic of communications planning, went terribly awry. Just as the interview was starting, the program that streams the audio portion of the interview crashed. I didn’t realize it until a few minutes in, and then I was unable to get things going again on the fly.
I had an incredible interview with Julie, but no one was able to hear it!
The only consolation to Leadership Lessons viewers is that I was able to take down a few notes. At the end of the interview, Julie shared her three bits of advice for higher ed communications professionals who are looking for ways to make more structured planning a part of their communications strategies. Here’s what she shared:
1. Really understand what the goals are for the client or entity that you work with.
Whether it’s the president of the university, a department head, or a special program or institute on campus, you can’t put together an effective communications plan without first understanding with they are trying to achieve. Make sure that the communications program you recommend can get them there. If you do that consistently, you won’t be an afterthought. Instead, you’ll be a strategic partner and invited into the process at early stages, when you can really create communications plans that make a difference.
2. Don’t be afraid to offer strong advice.
YOU are the communications expert. So often, people approach communications staff with a pre-baked solution (even though it may not be the right one). You need to shape the plan by knowing when to lead strategy in another direction, in a constructive way. Julie noted that early on in her career, she learned to say “Instead of…. why don’t we….” as a way to reframe conversations.
3. Try stuff!
Don’t be afraid to test things out. Learn from your experience. If something works, use it as a baseline for the next communications plan and improve on it. Get input by being open to new suggestions and new methods. Propose creative solutions.
When the University of Chicago’s school of business announced its record $300 million gift, Julie and her team put together a comprehensive plan for how to announce it. They were able to provide strategic counsel to the business school and come up with some creative ideas that helped navigate key opportunities surrounding the announcement. Because the gift announcement coincided with the 2008 presidential election and they knew they’d be unable to grab media attention during election week, Julie’s team pre-pitched the Wall Street Journal under embargo. They created a heavy focus on events to drive community and generate on-campus excitement surrounding the gift — the communications plan called for a large event/reception, and they created flyers and emails to business school students, alumni and faculty inviting them to a special event featuring a major announcement that would be transformational to the school. Their communication plan was designed to create a lot of excitement and buzz and foster the sense of community around the gift, the branding/naming of the school, and the implications of the gift on the future of the college.
Julie shared that communications plans aren’t just about big, overarching, institutional plans that cover a long time period. Even smaller projects can and should have communications plans — mini-plans, she called them. Whether your institution is making a big gift announcement, launching a new degree program, or taking a stance on a controversial issue, you should have a communications plan in place. That means understanding the goals, defining the key audiences and stakeholders and determining or outlining specific communications tactics and timelines. When a plan is in place, it’s much easier to keep things on track. Internal colleagues and stakeholders know what’s expected and through vetting and agreeing on a plan, are establishing their early buy-in.
PRSA CHE = Expertise
These were just a few pearls of wisdom Julie shared during her interview. Her level of expertise and openness is characteristic of what you’ll find across most members of the PRSA Counselors to Higher Education section: strategic thinkers who are among the best in their profession, and who are always willing to share their experiences with others. If you’re not currently a member of PRSA CHE, I encourage you to get involved and attend the Senior Summit every April in Washington, DC.
And I do hope you’ll join me for next month’s Leadership Lessons episode — which I intend to make issue-free!