Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Getting started on the press release diet @LSUResearchNews

Media relations folks are intrigued by the press release diet, my proposal that you kill two birds with one stone and start blogging your announcements, rather than loading up reporters' inboxes with releases. It's a way to use your powers for good, build better relationships with reporters and put social media to work, rather than making it an add-on to your to-do list. But communicators also want case studies. How do you get started? So I was happy to see this tweet:
The math behind this diet

Ashley Berthelot was on the other end of that tweet. She directs research news for Louisiana State University, a department created a year ago, working as a "team of two" with research editor Zac Lemoine.  Berthelot sees potential in the press release diet, in part because she sees the math behind the current state of affairs: Small staff x never-ending flow of research + overloaded reporters = news releases that don't get covered. Like most university PIOs, she can pitch the occasional national story, but most of her work involves coverage from those home-state reporters. "A lot of our work will get local play in the media, but there are only so many media outlets in Louisiana and a lot of news being generated. And there's only so much a newspaper can run about LSU in one day," she says. "I want to be able to get our news to reporters in a way that doesn't crush their inboxes. We've had days where we have 10 or 12 stories coming out. Even if all 10 or 12 are newsworthy, they're not going to be covered. We have to remind our researchers that we don't own the newspaper."

She has another thing in common with many university press offices, noting "most releases really are for internal purposes." While she notes that reporters have commented favorably on the writing and content of LSU research releases, she adds, "I'd love to know if any one of my press releases has ever been read from beginning to end. Most reporters skim. When we ask our local reporters do we give you too many releases, they hem and haw. But we can't sustain that information level. There has to be a strategy. It's hard when you're trying to tread water."

Berthelot also is clear that releases aren't always serving the university's external and internal goals. "We are working really hard to make sure people get the word about LSU research. When people think of us, they think of athletics before they think of academics," she says. "It's also a service issue for our department. Our researchers are really dedicated. They're producing amazing nuggets of information that wind up buried in a press release in someone's inbox. We want to focus on putting out those nuggets of information in ways that will resonate with our public audiences."

How they started the diet

Enter the press release diet, which Berthelot's just launching now. She started by talking to reporters. While she hasn't reached out to reporters systematically to announce the new approach, "we've run it past some reporters we work with closely and they're very enthusiastic," Berthelot reports. "They're interested in seeing a fresh way of getting news without it slipping through their fingers. We have reporters who are searching other blogs and using RSS, and others who want to be alerted through email or something more direct," all of which are options when you're publishing news through a blog with an RSS feed.

The next step involved building a series of blogs, using WordPress, and getting their infrastructure straight, then populating the blogs with content. You can see the quartert of blogs here, with their focus on "short-form stories, picture-heavy content and multimedia." They include:
  • A communications blog to share what her operation is doing and talk to other research communicators;
  • A blog featuring contributions from a single researcher. "We want this to be a semester-long commitment, so the scientist can enjoy it, but it won't add permanently to her workload," Berthelot notes;
  • A group blog for many researchers to post about their works-in-progress; and
  • A student researcher's blog, sharing opportunities for students to get hands-on research experience. The first student blogger will be accompanying a faculty member on a research mission to Antarctica, and blogging from the station there.
To ease into the diet, Berthelot says, "we've already really slowed down our use of press releases, even before the blogs launched. Anything we previously would have done in a release is going on the webiste, or our internal newsletter or social media. We've been reaching out to local reporters we talk to, letting them  know it's here." She's excited about the blog's multimedia content as an opportunity to get more television coverage and to highlight researchers talking about their work on video. "We have some dynamic researchers who can break it down and make technical topics accessible."

Looking ahead

How does she think it will work? "I'd love feedback," Berthelot says. "We've never done anything like this. We're a flagship state university and tradition is really big here, so I'm hoping this will work. With this new little department trying it first, we may help the big media relations office try it eventually--we're in a good position to go out on the limb and say this is new and different. We're excited." While she says "we may have to cheat on the diet here and there," she adds, "I think it's worth the commitment and worth sticking to the diet, and I'm reminded of that every time I think about the effort I put into writing a press release that doesn't get a response. We'll be able to do our jobs better this way."

Despite that, Berthelot does "think there will be challenges. I don't expect this to go off without a hitch." One of her goals is to "give our researchers a sense of ownership in communicating their work. With our traditional methods, they sometimes feel yanked in all directions. This way, they can say what they see as important and interesting." At the same time, because releases are what researchers have been taught to request, she thinks "we're going to get a lot of pushback from researchers. They'll ask 'What's the status of these releases?' and some of them won't be happy when they hear it's their stories I'm not sending out."

That might be why Berthelot's tweet, above, shared the link not to the press release diet, but to a follow-up post of mine called Instead of a news release: Options to add to your press release diet, a link I recommend you share with your internal clients, too. Are you trying the press release diet? Want to share your experiences with the rest of us? Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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