HBCUs Advised Not to Run Away from Bad News - Higher Education
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HBCUs Advised Not to Run Away from Bad News

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by Autumn A. Arnett

The biggest detriment to any campus media relations department is the idea that negative media coverage ― or no coverage at all ― is just part of the job.

That’s the message delivered by Media Matters for America Director of Outreach Rebecca Lenn on the opening day of this week’s HBCU Media Week conference, hosted by Hampton University.

Instead of just accepting negative press, said Lenn, it is important for university officials to combat the media misinformation that is presented about an institution, the HBCU community as a whole, or other socio-political issues that impact the campus or its students and faculty.

The first step to combating negative information, she said, is getting to know the media landscape.

“Know who is covering you and how they are covering you” and issues that are important to you, she said, adding that knowing the lens from which media professionals are reporting is key.

Lenn acknowledged that on many campuses, media practitioners are often stretched thin and monitoring the message may not be easy given the resources on campus, but she offered that there are a number of digital tools that make monitoring news simpler. SnapStream, TV Eyes, iQ Media, Google Alerts and Hootsuite Syndicate Pro are all inexpensive tools for real-time monitoring and finding out what is being said about an institution online, she said. Similarly, Spike, Lexis Nexis and PageOneX.com are all good tools to use for big picture monitoring of issues or media mentions.

“Be judicious with your search terms,” she advised, saying the more terms that are included in any monitoring alert, the more information will be brought to the PR professional’s attention.

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In addition, Lenn said it is important that professionals consider the source of the misinformation before deciding whether to respond ― “we need to be very strategic in what respond to and how to respond,” she advised ― so as not to give more credence to a story or mention that would not have gotten as much notice if it had gone ignored.

But once you decide to respond, said Lenn, it is important that communications professionals “don’t just debunk the myth” but that they “re-tell and replace myths with an alternative narrative” and offer motives for the misinformation.

For many people, untrue stories stick more than incomplete stories, so it is key that media professionals don’t simply say “that is untrue,” but offer a counter-narrative to the untruth, she said.

Another key is being mindful of the timeliness of the response and being careful not to “let the perfect be the enemy of the bad,” said Lenn. In other words, wasting time to craft the “perfect” response could get your perspective left out of the mix if the news cycle has moved on.

Some other helpful hints offered by session participants included forming relationships with key student voices, including student government officers and student newspaper staffs to ensure that their messaging aligns with that of the university on key issues. When stories unfold on social media and across the web, one participant said, it is imperative that the university have an official voice represented in the conversation and not be caught off-guard by student remarks.

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The idea that “we need money from everybody, so we don’t want to instigate or upset anyone” can be counterproductive to the overall mission of the communications department. Choosing not to make a statement is in itself a statement, offered another participant.

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