High-Impact Media Relations in Higher Education

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Many institutions are using impactful media relations to boost enrollment, especially from key geographies, age ranges, and target markets. But many others haven’t quite worked it out yet. 

How can your university use media relations as an effective enrollment growth strategy? 

Stephanie Mullins, Associate Director at BlueSky Education, joins the podcast to discuss the value of high-impact media relations as an enrollment growth strategy — even in a social world where institutions can control their own storytelling channels.

How to Create High-impact Media Opportunities

Senior leaders have an impact because they are people of stature and their voices carry weight. They have a title, which suggests they know what they’re talking about.

When those leaders carry your messages, they get attention.

Yet many institutions haven’t quite come to grips with how impactful these people can be.

“We’ve all seen different deans and vice chancellors who have a fantastic way with words,” Stephanie said. “They position their messages and their institution so well, especially in today’s world when people really want to connect with others.” 

Deans and presidents can help the public understand what an institution stands for around issues such as diversity, sustainability, or environmental concern. Their messages can help prospective students know if they want to learn there.

Discerning Valuable Media Opportunities From Others

Let’s say you get some local stories, and the dean or senior leader is flattered to be featured in this local media app. You tick the box and say,”Good, I got Dean Harrison in the local paper.”

But in this current media landscape, how do we move the needle on our enrollment?

Stephanie says to start with the goal. What do you want to achieve from your media work? Then ask yourself, “What’s the right place?” 

A particular institution in France was keen to increase their applications from the US. Stephanie and her team helped them to craft the idea that studying luxury was perfect if you do it in France.

Everyone already knows and already associates France with luxury brands — handbags and perfumes and things like that. The connection, therefore, was natural.

By making this connection through a fantastic media article in the New York Times, this institution saw a 20% increase in applicants from the US. 

Are you sharing the right message? Are you putting it in front of the right audience?

How high should you aim?

Should you just shoot for tier-one opportunities? Do you build up senior leaders over time to get increasingly and progressively bigger opportunities? What does that trend line look like and how high up should you aim out of your reach?

Here’s what Stephanie told us: It’s about ensuring what the journalists and particular key target media are focusing on. Your communications team can help advise on what newspapers and what journalists are writing about right now. 

Ask yourself:

  • How can you fit into what they’re speaking about?
  • How can you provide a different angle on the story?
  • What are other people not saying on this subject?
  • How can you stoke a little controversy in an interesting or pithy way?

Do this and you will gain visibility in the right place in front of the right people.

Decentralized Platforms: Too Small or Just Right?

Ten years ago on higher ed campuses, media relations teams were big and centralized. Today, they’re more fragmented. We rely on social media instead of local media. Some of us even believe that we’re acting as our own media companies. 

Is that better, or is it too small to be a comprehensive strategy?

Owned media channels are impactful because you control the message. People are smart, however, and they know that. When they see those tweets or posts,  they realize the institution is publishing what they want to say.

By sharing stories and messages through the media, though, you’re gaining relevance and gravity because of this third party endorsement.

Let’s say you want to share a story about an alumni who started a fantastic business and made multi-millions of dollars. No one has to talk about that. It’s being spoken about because it’s so wonderful. That’s not a university pushing out its own messages. It’s something that someone else has said, and for that reason, it’s powerful.

Next Steps to Successfully Pitching the Media our University Stories

Look for the overlap between what journalists are writing about and what you are keen to feature. Understand what they might be interested in. Don’t pitch something irrelevant. That will get you blacklisted.

It’s important to get it right and not lose your credibility or flub the opportunity to start an effective relationship.

Second, make it interesting. When you reach out to a journalist —  usually by email —  start with your pitch. Catch their attention. Don’t go on and on for paragraph after paragraph.

Just tell them why they should cover your story.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Stephanie Mullins, Associate Director at BlueSky Education. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.