This past November, The Washington Post announced that longtime Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Jack Stripling would be joining their education team.
“At The Post, Jack — a self-described “FOIA freak” — will continue to help us hold universities accountable. He will seek scoops about campuses and administrators across the country. He will dig deep into their biggest decisions and the impact those have on a generation of students. The investigative position is part of an expansion of the higher education team, coming at a time of increased scrutiny on both academics and the public and private money flowing into colleges.” – WashPost PR
This move to expand an investigative focus on universities when many journalists are being laid off or leaving the industry altogether highlights an interesting investment strategy from bigger named shops like The Post. This should be taken very seriously by institutions that need to upgrade their PR game.
There is a misconception that the media is out to get companies, but that’s not necessarily true, for multiple reasons.
The difference between actual journalism and tabloids is that news outlets are not constantly looking for embarrassing “gotcha” moments or honest mistakes to twist into scandals. Journalists hope to give people who are not in power a voice, shedding light on injustices, especially ones that were attempted to be covered up. If a newsroom gets a tip from someone about a story, it is typically from a stakeholder who does not like the way an issue was handled (ultimately, the way this issue was communicated to them, or lack thereof) and wants others to be angry about it and side with them. More than anything, it’s because they want to be heard and feel as though they haven’t.
If there’s transparency from the beginning and an organization has systems in place to provide an equitable and just response to a problem with visible, documented steps being taken to solve that problem, there is much less venom in a negative story. This is another reason universities should have a media relations team that is working with local reporters and makes information, statements, and interviews available whenever able.
Colleges and universities must look at how they can improve their own checks and balances system internally. Transparency with their communities is paramount for internal and external stakeholders so that no one gets blindsided. These communication efforts leave a paper trail that can be the backbone of your messaging should a crisis surface. Consistently informing people who care about your institution’s issues rolls out the carpet for others who may be able to offer their thoughts and solutions, again showing that your organization cares about your community being heard. This also promotes diversity of thought and inclusive decision-making when everyone has a seat at the table.
You cannot stop every crisis or investigative story from happening, but having a responsive public relations team can help your leadership get out in front of an issue, communicating and responding appropriately to your stakeholders and the media.