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Article – The Productive PR Office

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    Laura Jack

    The Productive PR Office
    By Russell S. Powell

    One of the most vexing problems confronting campus public-relations officers is how to measure our productivity and impact. Try as we might to be accountable to our institutions, our presidents, our immediate supervisors, and even ourselves, much of what we do is difficult to quantify. There are simply too many variables and unknowns to easily gauge our effectiveness. Yet during a time of tight budgets and shrinking print media—long the bread and butter of academic communications professionals—many of us are being asked to justify our existence and are forced to come up with new ways to do so.

    Can we quantify our work by, say, counting the number of news releases we send out? That won’t tell us if they were worthwhile. In some cases, as any journalist who has been flooded with esoteric announcements will tell you, less is more. A news release requires a newsworthy topic, over which we have little control. Some institutions may send them out daily, others as few as once a week, or less during summers or between semesters.

    Counting news releases also doesn’t tell us if they were well written and tailored to their intended audience of journalists. Even adding the number of reporters and editors to which each press release was sent doesn’t tell us if they went to the right people in the right places.

    How about counting the number of news outlets that actually use the releases, then? That, too, can be deceptive as a true measure of our worth. If we work in a small media market, for example, we may have a captive audience. Getting the hometown news media to print our press releases is good, but no big accomplishment. On the other hand, we could be doing a terrific job in a more competitive environment, but a shrinking news hole and the superior resources of a nearby university may limit our opportunities to make it on the air or into print.

    Finally, does the coverage reach key constituents, such as potential students and donors? It’s great to be in the local Pennysaver every week, but is that really advancing the institution’s mission?

    What about evaluating the quality of our media placements? But while it is nice to think that the article mentioning your college in The New York Times was responsible for the increase in applications the following fall, how do you know? There are too many other factors to consider—from the economy to the college’s direct-mail campaign, from the new admissions-staff members to the refurbished dormitories—to be able to say with certainty that the increase resulted from our PR efforts.

    More to the point, if your college draws students principally from its surrounding region, then how does a Times article or an NPR feature, aimed at a national audience, relate to your institution’s mission, other than boosting morale? It may help as a reprint used to legitimize the institution’s quality in the eyes of a prospective student or donor, but can we isolate the article’s impact from a dozen other factors? Is it likely to sway commuter students? If your applicant pool is from New England, does it really matter if people in New Orleans or San Francisco briefly see your college’s name?

    Like the writing we do for our alumni magazines or other college publications, we have faith that the news-media coverage contributes to the college’s overall identity and enhances its image, even if we cannot measure exactly how.

    So we’re back to quantifying our productivity: the number of news releases we distribute, publications we edit, speeches we write, events we plan, promotions we conduct, committees on which we serve. Flawed as that approach is, at least those things are nominally measurable. Their impact, on the other hand, is more difficult to quantify or assess.

    You might prevent or minimize just one PR crisis, for example. It wouldn’t look like much on your list of activities for the year, but the way you handled it might have saved the college enough money to pay your salary several times over. Your very success can make your job appear less necessary to those who are doing the counting.

    Our work generally falls into three main types: proactive, reactive, and maintenance. Proactive work, it can be argued, is the most critical but the most elusive when it comes to determining impact and productivity. Time taken to avert or minimize a potential crisis is definitely well spent. But besides crisis management, proactive work includes things like developing innovative promotional strategies, ferreting out news that otherwise might take weeks or months to cross our desks, doing research on communications technology, and making connections between people and programs. Those things take time and may show little return, at least initially.

    Reactive work takes up major chunks of our time. It includes things like an off-campus request for a high-resolution photo of a faculty member for a conference brochure, running clearance for a local camera crew getting footage to accompany an interview with the new president, serving on a search committee for an administrative hire, and posting a calendar notice for a lecture scheduled for the day after tomorrow, which the organizer forgot to mention until now. Those are projects with deadlines, which require our immediate response, are impossible to plan for, and are equally impossible to measure.

    Maintenance work is the routine stuff—writing for college publications, sending out news releases, meeting with reporters, and posting news on the Web. It means serving on a committee to plan a speaker series, developing a marketing plan for the humanities division, even attending regular staff meetings. Some of it can be measured, some not, and usually it feels like it blends together like one big soup.

    You certainly can’t rely on basic measures, such as time spent in your office, to determine your success. Much of what we do to be effective in public relations is to get out on the campus, attend events, meet with faculty members and students, greet the public. The best way to get current news about interesting people, courses, and accomplishments, and to learn what people outside the college are thinking, is to make the rounds, not sit in your office.

    Yet on many campuses, the expectation is that administrative staff members will spend the bulk of the workdays at their desks (unless, of course, they’re in buildings and grounds). A good PR person can get tons of useful information over coffee or lunch, or sitting in a classroom. But to many of our peers who are chained to their desks, that does not look like work, and the perception can lead to resentment.

    Things can get dicey because in any large institution there are employees—including some PR people—who waste inordinate amounts of time or spend it socializing endlessly about things that have nothing to do with their jobs. And beware people who always complains about how much work they have to do, or are quick to tell you how late they stayed the day before. That usually means the opposite of what they imply: They make a show of work to mask the fact that they aren’t really doing enough of it.

    To be effective in public relations, you have to like your work, and the people, programs, and products you are asked to promote. That means attending evening lectures as well as scheduling coffee dates, taking the time to sit in on student presentations as enthusiastically as having lunch with a faculty member. In other words, the PR staff members must embrace their campus and community so that they know them from the inside out, and not just work the surface levels.

    Good PR requires plenty of spade work to suss out the marketing implications of proposed programs; to develop new and exciting promotional strategies that align the campus’s mission with its resources; to serve as a constructive critic to help ensure that the educational “product” delivers on its claims; to educate the campus community on the need to promote the college and provide people with the language to do it; to spot and defuse potential crises before they reach the public eye.

    Yet essential as those tasks are to the institution, they are hard to quantify, and they don’t always look like work according to traditional measures, as defined by office culture. Peer pressure can push a timid PR person away from important work and into the trap of sitting behind a desk. Don’t let that happen to you.

    What does all of this add up to? A sometimes uneasy tension between the objective performance criteria favored by the human-resources office, the sincere desire by PR staffers to be accountable, and the realities of our sprawling, amorphous, and evolving jobs. That’s why, in preparing for your annual performance review and establishing goals for the coming year, it’s good to use a variety of approaches and tools:

    Use traditional measures, but know their limitations. By all means, tally your news releases, trumpet your media placements, cite your articles in the college publication, and list your committee assignments. Just remember, they don’t tell the whole story.

    Set realistic goals. Don’t set yourself up for failure by agreeing to vague or unrealistic goals like “get more national media attention.” Develop a short list of, say, six media outlets that are a good match for your institution, whether because of the company’s size or location, your institution’s mission and goals, or the nature of the stories on your campus that have national potential. In the best cases, those categories will overlap, but it doesn’t always work that way. Just because you want to expand your history program, don’t attempt to stretch your faculty members’ expertise beyond recognition. Keep your national-media goals focused, and realistic.

    Engage your supervisor. Whether you report to a director of institutional marketing, a vice president for communications, or the president, the more you keep them apprised of developments in your field and the shifting nature of your work, the better. Given the fluidity of our communication tools and the audiences for them, this is no time to put on a false front or to assume that your supervisor is familiar with the changes. Your supervisor can and should be your best ally, but only if you are forthcoming.

    Maintain higher standards than your boss. Take the initiative and make accountability a high priority. Especially in a work environment in which that is challenging to do, you are the person best qualified to develop new ways to measure your effectiveness. The alternatives—to wait for someone else (your supervisor) to do it, or to be judged by outdated standards—are not in your best interest.

    Russell Powell is a public-relations officer at Elms College, in Chicopee, Mass. He previously worked as director of public relations at Hampshire College and at Greenfield Community College, and as a consultant. He writes for On Message, our column on career issues in academic public relations. If you would like to write for the column, send your ideas to


    Yes, I saw that piece in the Chronicle this morning, too (and thought about posting a link to it here!).

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