Five Rules for Dealing with the Media

Advice for AAUP chapters.
By Greg Loving and Jeff Cramerding

AAUP chapters need to get their messages out in the media now more than ever. Media messaging does not come naturally to professors, however; academic training is poor preparation for communicating with the media.

From the founding of Harvard University in 1636 through the land-grant movement of the mid-1800s and the development of modern research institutions early in the twentieth century, American higher education has served a small minority of the population for most of its history. As spaces of elite education, colleges and universities had the luxury of operating independently, and the professorial mindset is still shaped by this sense of independence. Professors resist “meddling” by what they see as outside forces lacking the expertise to make informed decisions. They see it as their job to seek knowledge and to critique society, not to be critiqued by society.

The situation in which professors work, however, has changed radically over the past few decades. The democratic impulse, always present even in the elitist model of higher education, grew into full-blown populism following developments such as the post–World War II GI Bill and the Higher Education Act of 1965. More of the population has pursued a college degree as higher education has become the price of admission to middle-class employment. As more tax dollars have flowed to higher education through direct aid or student loans, the growing constituencies of higher education have sought greater input and oversight. State legislatures, chambers of commerce, licensing boards, federal agencies, companies, and civic groups all have legitimate interests in how higher education operates.

Higher education administrations, for-profit colleges, textbook companies, and other higher education players have lobbyists, public relations departments, branding initiatives, and various forms of outreach to connect to these interested constituencies. If professors, too, want to influence the developing landscape of higher education, they need to communicate to constituents in ways that they can understand. This does not mean giving up on the ideals of academic freedom or education as the unflinching search for knowledge. It does mean coming down from the ivory tower and getting involved in the messy world of politics, business, and media. If concerned constituencies do not understand the professor’s point of view, then the professor’s point of view will be discounted in the future development of higher education.

Effective media messaging is essential in today’s higher education environment. Unfortunately, the skills that make for good media messaging go against almost all of the training and habits professors have developed over the last four hundred years. Professors are trained to see nuance and to draw carefully qualified conclusions, and they take their own sweet time in doing so. Worst of all, from a media perspective, is that professors are accustomed to talking in fifty-minute blocks and writing in five-thousand-word chunks.

The media is geared for memorable sound bites, unqualified conclusions, immediate comment, and extreme messages. A five-minute news report is an in-depth story. An eight-hundred-word news article is an investigative exposé. If the story doesn’t hook readers or listeners in ten seconds, they turn the page or change the channel.

To reach people through the media, professors need to adopt the ways of effective media messaging. Such messaging may ultimately open the door to deeper conversations and explorations. If the door stays closed, those deeper conversations can never happen.

In preparing to use the media to connect with the public, understanding the current media environment is paramount. We don’t live in a Walter Cronkite world anymore. The Internet has quickly, fundamentally, and unalterably changed the landscape. Traditional print journalism, increasingly referred to as “legacy media,” is facing tremendous financial pressure and constant staff reductions. News outlets find it cheaper to aggregate stories from other sources than to pay reporters.

Even when media outlets do rely on their own journalists, problems abound. The beat reporter is an endangered species. Reporters often have to cover multiple topics, which means that frequently they have little background in what they are covering. Fact-checkers have been another casualty of cutbacks, making this situation even worse.

The Internet has also blurred traditional media distinctions. Print journalists use video to augment stories for an online audience. Broadcast journalists push their online stories with accompanying print articles. The goal of all media is to quickly produce brief articles with a compelling narrative that will generate web traffic—the “click rate”—and advertising revenue. The deadline is almost always “right now.”

To connect to the public in ways they understand, professors need to learn how to craft understandable, brief, and catchy messages.

So, after this overly long and yet under-researched, under-nuanced, and under-elaborated professorial introduction, which took you three times longer to read than the standard media segment, here are five rules to help AAUP chapters succeed in connecting to the public through the media.

Rule #1: Craft and Test Your Message

Messages are global statements about priorities. Talking points tie those messages to specific events. Examples of messages include “attract and retain the most talented professors,” “higher education for a better society,” and “put students’ education first.” The messages can be focused to create talking points for any situation, including faculty salaries and benefits, athletics, building plans, or administrator compensation.

Messages represent the group, not any specific individual. However a chapter decides to craft its messages, that process should involve as many members as possible. If the process starts with the leadership in a series of meetings or retreats, the membership should eventually vote to accept the mission and messages of the chapter. Messaging is no place for rogue or idiosyncratic ideas, even if those ideas come from chapter leaders.

When crafting talking points, keep them brief and simple. A print article might contain two or three sentences from any one perspective—if it is a long article. A television or radio news story will be about two minutes or less, and the individual quotations might be ten or fifteen seconds. Any messaging must be effectively conveyed within these space and time restrictions. There are no footnotes.

The audience is the general public, not fellow academics or university administrators. Be cognizant of the constitutive elements of academic jargon so that you can eradicate it from your speech. Beware of vocabulary that has meaning only within academic circles. The term adjunct, for instance, may not be understood by the general public.

Also avoid terms that the public routinely misunderstands. Unfortunately, these include core AAUP concepts such as tenure, shared governance, and academic freedom. Instead, talking points should convey the core ideas behind these concepts and the benefits they offer. Do not fall into the trap of trying to educate the public in the media. There will not be time or opportunity.

In creating talking points, be careful about how you use facts. A number can be eye-catching—“the stadium is $1 billion over budget”—but resist the urge to incorporate statistics into the message. Professors think that facts speak for themselves. They do not. Statistics do not resonate with the general public, and hence the media avoid using them. Tie the statistic to a message: “The stadium is draining resources from education.” To make statistics come to life in a media story, use specific examples of specific people in specific situations: “Daphne is working two jobs to pay for school, but her tab for the new stadium is thirteen hundred dollars a year.” And do not expect to have an opportunity to use charts, graphs, or other visual aids.

Ideally, focus groups or professional polling would be used to test messaging, but this is time-consuming and often cost-prohibitive. A message can be informally tested with a few nonacademic acquaintances to ensure that it is indeed simple and easy to understand.

Rule #2: Train Press Representatives

All who deal with the media should use identical talking points. This rule can be difficult for professors who are trained to have something original to say. “Parroting” talking points can feel a lot like plagiarism, but it is absolutely necessary. Sticking to talking points ensures that everyone is on message and makes it harder for the media to create a different narrative. The more often people hear a simple message, the more likely they are to give it consideration.

The chapter president is usually the primary spokesperson, but others in leadership should be trained for occasions when the president is unavailable. Many broadcast media outlets require at least two interviews. If your chapter has staff, they should be trained but used only as a last resort. It may be helpful to produce a nonfaculty interviewee, such as a student, if it would be relevant to the story. Reporters do not have time to seek a representative sample; the best interviewees are the available ones. Provide them.

Training should consist of running through media scenarios. Ask trainees questions a reporter is likely to ask and have them answer. Giving good answers in practice situations, or even in the car on the way to an event, builds vocal “muscle memory,” which pays off in stressful interview situations and keeps press representatives from straying from talking points.

Sticking to talking points does not mean that you can’t have something “colorful” to say. Reporters love a good sound bite, but be sure the sound bite is understandable to the public, could offend no one, and sticks to the talking points.

Rule #3: Work on the Reporter’s Schedule

Broadcast reporters work on a tight schedule. In the current press environment, print reporters are just as harried. They often write more in a week than a professor does in a year. Respond to them quickly. Ask about deadlines, but expect the answer to be “right now.” Have talking points prepared before returning a call or arranging an interview. It’s not unusual for a story to be posted minutes after the interview is complete.

Reporters often contact subjects through social media, so if you have a chapter Facebook page or Twitter account, make sure that someone is responsible for monitoring it and responding to inquiries. When answering a reporter’s questions by e-mail, all the same rules apply—brief, simple answers conveying core messages.

Schedule press conferences and events at times that work for the press. Midmorning and early afternoon are often convenient for broadcast reporters. Times that overlap with the morning, noon, or evening news are more difficult. Resist the urge to call press conferences unless something very important happens. Even on the slowest news day, higher education is probably the least interesting thing happening. Try not to schedule events when anything else important is going on. Understand that, if there is breaking news, you are likely to be cut from that news cycle. Those are just the breaks.

Tight schedules and timelines reinforce the need for good talking points. You will have the professorial urge to research the issue to death before commenting, but resist or your comments will be useless to the reporter, who needed them yesterday. If you need to put off the reporter for a short time in order to pull some information together, measure that in hours— and tell the reporter exactly when he or she will get your response. If you have to stall, tell the reporter you need to go teach. It’s the one thing a professor does that the public truly understands.

Rule #4: Build Relationships with Reporters

Determine if a specific reporter is covering campus issues or the education beat in your area. Introduce yourself before a crisis arises. Invite the reporter for a cup of coffee to provide background about your chapter or relevant issues. This kind of “education” pays off in more accurate coverage, but don’t “teach,” which comes off as condescending.

Don’t forget student reporters. Even if few other people read the campus paper, the administration does.

Set up a Twitter account and follow local reporters and news organizations; familiarize yourself with the media landscape. Twitter is an extremely popular tool among the media because its 140-character limit is uniquely suited to an ultrafast environment. Retweeting or promoting articles on social media is a great way to ingratiate yourself with reporters who are under constant pressure to generate increased readership and web traffic. Reporters will most likely follow your chapter Twitter account. In fact, Twitter has almost eliminated the need for press releases. “Tweet and link” is the new press release.

Do not assume that a reporter is either an ally or an enemy. The relationship is a professional and reciprocal one. You are expecting reporters to do something for you in reporting your story accurately. Do something for them by giving them story ideas or sources for other stories they are working on. If you develop a reputation for providing accurate, engaging, and media-ready information, reporters will contact you as a matter of course.

Also, know the lingo. On the record means that the reporter can use the comments in print. Assume everything is on the record unless it is explicitly stated otherwise. Off the record means the information is provided for background and context, not publication. On background is information that can be used but not attributed to a specific person (it might be attributed instead, for example, to “sources within the union”). Off the record and on background are easily confused outside of media circles and should be used sparingly. They often make the reporter’s job more difficult. Reporters may stop calling if you overuse them. Finally, no comment should be banished from your vocabulary. If it’s what you want to say, it’s better not to answer requests for an interview at all. If you are stuck having to comment, redirect to a basic talking point.

If you are uncertain whether the reporter understands what you said, feel free to ask the reporter to read back quotations they intend to publish. Do not expect to see a draft of the article. After publication, give positive feedback to the reporter if your comments were used correctly. Politely point out any inaccuracies, but do not critique the work. Tweet, post, and link the article in all venues the chapter uses. The reporter will appreciate the click traffic.

Rule #5: Stop Talking

Intelligent people often prove to be the worst spokespeople; they feel the need to demonstrate their intelligence. Professors are rewarded for this behavior. But an effective spokesperson clings to talking points like a life raft. The same points should be reiterated over and over. And over. The less said, the more likely the desired message will be published.

Professors tend to answer silence with more information, and they always feel the urge to answer any question asked. Good media spokespeople are comfortable with silence.

If the reporter asks a question that diverges from the talking points, ignore the question and answer with the talking points. Reporters can use only what you actually say. They can’t print what you don’t say. So say only what you want them to print. Reporters will usually not persist, but if they do, it is perfectly acceptable to state, “I do not know the answer to that, but I will get back to you.” Then get back to them when you said you would. It’s almost a rule in media relations that if you stray from the talking points, that’s the material a reporter will use. Don’t stray.

Doctors make the worst patients. Similarly, professors often make the worst students. The ways of the media go against much of how professors think about issues. As higher education serves more of the public, however, the public needs to hear what professors and organizations such as the AAUP have to say. The payoff to learning effective media communications is that the public begins to understand higher education from a professor’s perspective. This, in turn, is the only thing that can lead to better personal and public policy decisions regarding the role of higher education in American society. 

Greg Loving is associate professor of philosophy at University of Cincinnati Clermont College and president of the UC AAUP chapter. His academic background is in philosophy of religion, and his recent research interests include the history of higher education and the psychology of pedagogy. His e-mail address is [email protected]Jeff Cramerding serves as director of contract administration and communications at AAUP-UC and is a member of the bar in Ohio. Before joining the AAUP-UC, Cramerding served as the principal of a communications and government affairs agency. His e-mail address is [email protected].