College Media Conference Focuses on ‘Real News: Taking Higher Education’s Story to the Media’

A near record number of participants explored the theme “Real News: Taking Higher Education’s Story to the Media” at the 2018 College Media Conference. Co-hosted by CIC and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), 237 campus PR professionals engaged with top journalists and seasoned communication experts at the June 25–27 meeting in Washington, DC. Sessions drew more than 300 participants from across the United States, as well as Mexico and Qatar.

An opening panel featuring Wall Street Journal Reporter Melissa Korn, Slate News Editor Chad Lorenz, and Diverse: Issues In Higher Education Executive Editor Jamal Watson addressed “Trending News on the Higher Education Front.” Korn said that higher education has a vocal “chorus of doubters,” but that she wanted to know what schools were doing to articulate their value. Korn said she is interested in the return on investment (ROI) of college, campus innovations, financial pressures on colleges, state disinvestment in education, performance of endowments, and, of course, numbers and data. She advised campuses to highlight “why people are going to college, the types of jobs and skills graduates end up with, and the kinds of careers they have.” Salary information, while not all-encompassing, is important to audiences and to parents.

Lorenz described Slate as primarily a news commentary magazine. Topic-driven, Slate follows issues such as free speech, sexual assault and harassment, race and admissions policies, the replication crisis in science research, college debt, and the effects of the Trump administration on higher education.

Watson said that he always leaves the conference with many story ideas, and he encouraged participants to talk with him. Watson cited the 24/7 news cycle and the lack of civility and respect for the media as having a serious impact on current reporting. He asked participants to make their campus experts available, to ensure the college website is up to date, and to clearly post contacts for the media.

All the panelists encouraged colleges and universities to take the offensive to explain ROI, outcomes, student success, and to use data whenever possible. “Do not shy away from controversy,” Watson advised, “tell your side of the story.” The panelists also urged campus communicators to address the decline in public trust by using the testimonies of faculty and students, which can be very powerful.

Four presenters seated in chairs on stage
In a special session sponsored by The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Tackling Public Mistrust of the Value of Higher Education,” editor Liz McMillen drew on the perspectives of José Luis Cruz, president of Lehman College of the City University of New York; Richard Ekman, CIC president; and Lynn Pasquerella, AAC&U president.

The conference featured more than 40 presenters, including journalists from such media outlets as the New York Times, ABC News, CBS This Morning, CNN, National Public Radio, Kilplinger’s Personal Finance, Money, Science, Politico Pro, BuzzFeed News, Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and Education Dive. Participants connected with presenters and colleagues through sessions as well as morning roundtable discussions, an evening reception, and newsroom tours.

Sessions explored such topics as working with opinion editors, enhancing relations between presidents and the press, working with regional media, improving crisis communications, and harnessing the power of social media. Media relations consultant Michael Smart advised participants how to pitch stories effectively in a climate where “there are four PR people for every journalist in the country.”

A special session sponsored by The Chronicle of Higher Education focused on “Tackling Public Distrust of the Value of Higher Education.” Chronicle editor Liz McMillen moderated a panel that included José Luis Cruz, president of the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York; Richard Ekman, president of CIC; and Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U).

McMillen opened the session by asking “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the level of public trust in higher education?” Ekman and Pasquerella said “two,” while Cruz offered a “six” rating. Ekman said he takes the long view in looking at causes: Politicians began to sow seeds of distrust 20 years ago, and it “snowballed.” Pasquerella discussed causes such as cost, debt, and intolerance on the national level. She added that colleges enjoyed more trust among constituents locally. Cruz said that minority-serving institutions received more support and trust, but he expressed concern that the distrust would make its way into minority communities that most need the upward mobility path that higher education offers.

Ekman admitted that “Colleges are not blameless.... We discounted conservative critics and did not answer their questions when they first arose.” Pasquerella said the public’s disdain and mistrust of experts has amplified the problem. Cruz emphasized, “We must provide counter-narratives that demonstrate the real success our students are having.”

Resources from the 2018 College Media Conference are available online.