From 1992 to 1997, I was the director of communications for Scripps College. My big media coup at the time was riding the wave of "the Hillary factor." Hillary Clinton had just become First Lady and the fact that she'd gone to Wellesley boosted the popularity of women's colleges significantly. Scripps, the women's college of The Claremont Colleges, wound up in Newsweek, Glamour, and featured on The Jane Pratt show. It was a big deal because back then colleges weren't big news, especially small liberal arts colleges.
So, I began to wonder what it's like for college PR folks these days when media outlets like the New York Times and Daily Beast now devote huge amounts of space to college stories. Jodi Heintz, director of public relations, at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, gave me this insight:
"I think the media is very interested in telling a certain kind of story about higher ed. Generally, it is true that because of the bad economy local and national reporters are actually beating down the doors of colleges looking for stories and people to interview. The bad news, in my opinion, is that they are only interested in telling one story -- the story of how bad everything is. They are singularly interested in covering crisis -- falling applications numbers, or conversely, overwhelming application numbers, endowment catastrophes, hiring freezes or lay offs, tuition increases, etc."
Heintz recalls one New York Times article about liberal arts college admissions deans wringing their hands over drops in applications. The article only briefly mentions at the end that, at one such dean's college, it was still their third-highest year in total number of applications.
She says that while she has indeed seen an increase in the number of reporter inquiries from the top media outlets, she's actually chosen not to respond.
"I'm concerned that collectively we are feeding the frenzy. I understand that many colleges are facing difficult circumstances but there are far more nuanced stories to tell about the economic challenges. And, I'm sure we PR professionals in higher ed could do a better job of educating reporters and helping shift the conversation and coverage."