College Media Conference Celebrates 30th Anniversary with Top Journalists

Participants exchange ideas during breakfast roundtable discussions
College Media Conference participants exchanged ideas during breakfast roundtable discussions on a variety of topics.

The College Media Conference marked its 30th anniversary with presentations by more than 30 top journalists as well as seasoned university communicators who together explored the theme, “Mastering the Media Revolution.” Nearly 200 college and university public relations professionals from around the country participated in the event, which took place at Washington, DC’s Capital Hilton Hotel, June 27–29, 2016. Co-hosted by CIC and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the event is the only national conference that enables campus PR officers to meet such large numbers of journalists. Participants were able to learn from and connect with reporters, editors, and producers from such media outlets as the Washington Post, New York Times, National Public Radio, CNBC, ABC, CNN, Huffington Post, U.S. News and World Report, Hechinger Report, Slate, Politico, Scientific American, Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, among others.
The conference provides an opportunity for journalists to discuss issues they typically cover, information they would like to receive from colleges and universities, and how colleges can communicate with the media most effectively.

Two female participants ask questions to speakers
Conference participants engaged in lively question-and-answer sessions.

In a session on “Communicating Science News,” three science editors and reporters discussed how colleges and universities should pitch science news for print and online publications as well as radio. Christopher Joyce, science desk correspondent at NPR, remarked, “We need your help getting your people to speak English. Communicate with us in a way we can use—we live by sounds bites.” He explained that when interviewed, many people in the scientific community speak as if they are talking with their peers—not to journalists or the general public. “The larger mission is to get the message across to the public, which is woefully ignorant of science.” He said it can be helpful to use an analogy, metaphor, or simile when relating complicating ideas. For example, a story about an asteroid field could compare real asteroid fields to those seen in the Empire Strikes Back, which many people will remember. Joyce concluded, “Work with scientists on your campus to remind them they are talking to the public. Help them practice—and don’t wait until the last minute.”
Many presenters—such as CNBC consumer reporter Kelli Grant, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance staff writer Kaitlin Pitsker, and U.S. News and World Report managing editor of education Anita Narayan—emphasized that they are unlikely to cover a development at one college. They are instead looking for broader trends in the higher education sphere—examples of two or three colleges doing similar things. This prompted a conference participant (Teri Bond, director of media relations at the Art Center College of Design) to begin a Twitter hashtag (#trendpitch) for conference participants to share potential trends with reporters.
Several journalists also expressed that they would like to write more stories about solutions instead of problems—or as Narayan said, “Nobody likes being negative all of the time.” David Pluviose, executive editor of Diverse, said that instead of reading so many reports about disparities, he’d like to cover more “what works” stories that point out how colleges are fixing such problems. Many journalists also indicated that college affordability, student debt, financial aid, and saving and paying for college are among the top issues they expect to cover. Quartz reporter Amy Wang, however, remarked that instead of reporting about the “student debt crisis” she is interested in hearing about specific college initiatives to reduce student debt, and Washington Post education finance reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel said she would like to hear more examples of how colleges improve graduation rates for Pell-eligible students. And Doug Lederman, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, said he wants stories that answer critiques of higher education. “The higher ed enterprise is built on experimentation and failure but doesn’t like to say there is a problem…. [Inside Higher Ed] wants stories of experimentation and attempts to try to improve.”

Amy X. Wang, David Pluviose, and Anita Narayan speak from the head table
In a session on “Fresh Perspectives in Education Media” Amy X. Wang of Quartz, David Pluviose of Diverse: Issues In Higher Education, and Anita Narayan of U.S. News & World Report discussed their editorial approaches and interests.

Other reporters emphasized the advantages of cooperating with the media when a problem occurs at an institution. For example, Anemona Hartocollis, national reporter for higher education at the New York Times, said, “If I’m going to write about an issue, it’s better to engage with me and help shape my point of view than to be obstructionist—I’m going to write the story anyway.” Chad Lorenz, news editor at Slate, remarked, “If you are at an institution that is doing it right [responding to or solving a problem], it makes sense to me that you would want to trumpet it…make it a positive.” Tyler Kingkade, senior editor of the Huffington Post, commented that he generally finds small liberal arts colleges cooperative—they readily help get deans on the phone and arrange for him to speak with students. He said it is advantageous for college representatives to talk to him because it reminds him of their human spirit and that way he hears more than one side of the story. Emily Richmond, contributor to the Atlanticand public editor of the Education Writers Association (EWA), noted that one-third of EWA members say they have trouble getting access to schools and campuses. “Be gatekeepers—not prison guards. Help reporters gain access, build relationships.”

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, Tyler Kingkade, and Anemona Hartocollis speak from the head table.
The session, “Making News in Tomorrow's Media World,” featured Danielle Douglas-Gabriel of the Washington Post, Tyler Kingkade of Huffington Post, and Anemona Hartocollis of the New York Times.

Most reporters, editors, and producers emphasized the importance of keeping story pitches direct and concise. Before pitching to her, Hartocollis recommended that campus communicators check what the email would look like on a mobile phone. If she can’t see the main point of the email in the first few lines she will delete it. Scott Jaschik, editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed, said that he has never rejected a pitch “because it was too short.” He just needs three sentences that explain the issue, why it’s of interest, and contact information.
PR and public policy specialists provided tips on issues such as transforming digital strategies, measuring social media, writing the perfect pitch, and negotiating public policy challenges facing higher education. In a session on “Practical Social Media Measurement,” Jeffrey Davis, principal of J. Davis Public Relations, LLC, and Cole Hatcher, director of media and community relations at Ohio Wesleyan University, warned that just because a site has a high number of followers (which can be purchased), that doesn’t mean the numbers will help reach a campaign’s desired goals. “You need to build followers the real way—be interesting, be real, interact, follow back, and post information that is interesting to your followers…. The same thing with metrics—you can use tools, but you need to put thought into it—you can’t just print a report and hand it to your boss.” When discussing integrating social media in her talk, “Seven Ways to Transform Your Digital Strategy,” Claire Machamer said brand hashtags should be brief, unique, consistent with the brand, and evoke emotion. When emphasizing the importance of creating sharable content, Machamer, who is director of digital media at the University of North Carolina School of Arts, explained that people generally share content that makes them look smart, is about their identity, is funny, already has likes, and elicits high-arousal emotions. And Marie Malzberg, senior editorial producer of CNN’s At This Hour, said college and university PR officers should have a “great presence on social media and use proper hashtags for breaking news. We use social media for everything.”

Michael Smart walks among the participants
PR specialist Michael Smart explored, “The Art—and Science—of the ‘Perfect’ Pitch.”

In his session, “The Art—and Science—of the Perfect Pitch,” Michael Smart, president of Michael Smart PR, challenged participants to identify at least one new outlet (even a nonmedia outlet) that reaches their key audiences but they aren’t pitching to yet. He gave an example of a success story by Brigham Young University promoting Team USA luger Kate Hansen, a BYU student. Hansen is a Beyoncé fan, and when a video of Hansen warming up by dancing to a Beyoncé song reached the singer’s publicist, Beyoncé posted “Go Kate” on her Facebook page, causing the warm-up video to go viral and resulting in massive amplification of BYU’s post. Smart also recommended targeting five to ten key “media influencers,” to read their stories, and react to them via social media in order to get noticed by the journalist, who will then be more receptive to pitches.
A special evening program—sponsored by the Chronicle and held at the National Press Club—featured one of the nation’s top political commentators, Eleanor Clift. A Washington correspondent for the Daily Beast, contributor to MSNBC, and panelist on the McLaughlin Group, Clift provided an insider perspective on the media and the presidential election during the talk, “The Trump Train versus the Clinton Juggernaut: What’s the Media’s Role?” After discussing how in the beginning of the campaign, Trump received much more airtime and far less critical coverage than the other candidates, she emphasized that the media has an obligation to call out the foul calls they see and to do it in real time. Session interlocutor Liz McMillen, editor of the Chronicle, asked about the proliferation of journalistic outlets in recent years and whether Clift sees any “bright spots.” Clift replied, “Yes, there is a lot of good journalism out there, but [quality coverage] doesn’t necessarily make it to the top of someone’s Twitter feed.” She noted that normally, when a candidate is unpopular, people don’t vote. But in this election “the Supreme Court is a huge prize…and there’s too much at stake not to vote or to write in a candidate…. Think about the issues you care most about and vote for the party that best represents your interests. Because there are a lot of issues at stake here.”

Participants raise their hands to ask questions to Eleanor Clift
During a special evening program held at the National Press Club, Eleanor Clift, Washington correspondent at the Daily Beast, and Liz McMillen, editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, discussed the media’s role in the U.S. presidential election.

As part of the conference’s 30th anniversary, “PR Stars”—those who have attended five or more media conferences—were recognized and participants celebrated with a cake-and-Champaign toast and prizes.
During pre- and post-conference activities, nearly 100 participants visited the newsrooms of the Chronicle, C-SPAN, Inside Higher Ed, National Public Radio, and the Washington Post’s new headquarters or attended a breakfast meeting with Diverse: Issues In Higher Education editors and reporters. On Wednesday afternoon, several participants toured the Newseum.
The 2016 conference presentations and resources are available at The 2017 conference will take place June 26–28, again at the Capital Hilton in Washington, DC.