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Redefining Media Relations Success in 2023 | Inside Higher Ed


Defining success in media relations has long been a challenge for public relations professionals. While available measurement metrics have become more sophisticated and meaningful in recent years, there are still gray areas that are difficult to connect solidly to impact. Perhaps this is why CEOs and boards often resort to goals and directives focused on media outlets. We’ve all heard it: “Get us in The New York Times.”

The reality is very few stories reach the threshold necessary for coverage in The New York Times. And by using it as a measure of success, we are being set up for failure. It can take some convincing to change minds about what constitutes a win in media relations, but the industry has changed significantly in a short amount of time. As practitioners, it’s up to us to shift the conversation, help leadership set goals that can be tracked to strategic priorities and celebrate lesser known media outlets for the enormous value they can bring. Here are a few points to consider when making your case.

Small Media Outlets Can Have Big Reach

Today’s media landscape consists of a vast network of content sharing that gives smaller outlets disproportionate reach. (This is even before you start to take social media into account.) Many media outlets have formed critical partnerships that allow for efficiencies on the business end and broader exposure for content. Consider outlets like NerdWallet. Probably not high on your board’s list of target media outlets. In fact, they don’t describe themselves as a media outlet at all; they’re a finance company. But their content is regularly picked up by other outlets, including the Associated Press and MarketWatch, to name a few.

The Conversation is another great example, as are Forage and The Hechinger Report. And there are more—many with highly regarded journalists on staff, rigorous editorial standards and fact-checking processes. In other words, they’re legit. And lots of people see their content in lots of different places.

Then there are things like the USA Today network of local and regional papers and local broadcast affiliates. While working directly with NPR is thrilling, often the best way to hit the national audience is to work with a local affiliate station and support them in creating a story that checks all the boxes for national pickup. In some ways, this is even more impactful, because the story is shared repeatedly over a longer period of time, first locally and then, days later, nationally.

Connecting Media Coverage to Institutional Priorities Helps Show Impact

A one-line mention in a Wall Street Journal article is nice, and it seems to make board members happy (assuming it’s part of a positive story). But how much does that one line do for your organization? Would a dedicated feature story in the local paper or an association blog do more to advance the storylines your institution most wants to tell?

By strategically approaching media relations so that pitching goals are tied to institutional priorities—like those of a strategic plan or marketing blueprint—rather than target outlets, you can begin to better assess how impactful your efforts and the resulting coverage really are. Oftentimes smaller outlets can cover local institutions in a deeper way, giving audiences a better idea of who you are and what you stand for. So, while a mention by The Washington Post is great, a local story that shines a spotlight on major initiatives or highlights your mission in a unique way can be even more valuable. And how you present these kinds of clips to your board can help demonstrate that value as well. Focus on the ties to institutional initiatives and less on whether The New York Times appears in your clips list.

Don’t Eliminate the Top Tier Altogether

If you do find yourself with an unbelievable story to tell, one that does reach the standards necessary for a top-tier media pitch, it remains worth pursuing and celebrating if you have success. I hate clutter, love purging and am not at all sentimental, and even I have held on to my New York Times clips, which I made special trips to the store to purchase in print and carefully cut out for safekeeping. I worked hard for them and am proud of them.

But among the work I am most proud of over the course of my career is a feature in The Orange County Register. There’s not widespread name recognition of the outlet, and its readership pales in comparison to The New York Times. But the story hit every key message the institution wanted out there and accomplished the storytelling goals the team was hoping to reach. (I have a hard copy of this one saved, too.)

Getting media coverage for your institution is hard work. There’s a real reason it’s called earned media. And this year, I am challenging myself to acknowledge and celebrate all types of success—and challenging others to rethink old notions of media success as well.


Kristine Maloney is assistant vice president at TVP Communications, a national communications and leadership agency solely focused on higher education.





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