I revisited my Midwestern roots last month (ah, flyover country) while attending the HigherEds 2010 Huddle at the University of Michigan, and in the process picked up a lot of ideas and inspiration from folks who face the same daily challenges we do.
HigherEds is a loosely affiliated group of North American university communicators who keep in touch with each other throughout the year on an email listserv, and get together each summer for a Huddle, a not-really-a-conference where we spend two days giving and taking in presentations, sharing ideas, asking questions and networking. The past three summers, Huddles were held in Toronto, Rutgers (N.J.) and Michigan. (If you notice a geographic trend here, you’re not alone, which is why there’s chatter on the listserv about a West Coast Huddle in 2013.) While originally focused on internal communications strategy and practice, the group has seen that audience boundary dissolve as the web and other new technologies spread our communications farther and wider.
This year’s Huddle covered a wide variety of topics, from social media and press releases to humanities news and DIY video. Copies of the presentations for many of these topics are available on the group’s website (highereds.org). But I thought I’d call out a few of the lessons learned that struck me as particularly helpful in a Berkeley context.
Social Media: Michigan has a vigorous social media operation led by a full-time director recruited from the corporate world, Jordan Miller. She talked about the @UMichStudents account on Twitter, in which a different student each week tweets about his/her activities, thoughts and interests. Jordan vetted the students, all volunteers, by looking at their existing social media presences to get an idea of their style and appropriateness. One of her goals was to pick a broad cross-section of tweeters to represent UMich’s diversity: a rah-rah cheerleader one week, a geek the next, a student politician the third, etc. She says the feed has been immensely popular, and hasn’t caused any blowback despite having the students post without any kind of institutional review or editing. (She acknowledges that the idea “may well be a time bomb,” but the return so far has been great.) Jordan and others also noted that Twitter seems to attract a more thinking, less “ditto that” audience than Facebook, making it a better place to promote more intellectual or important stories.
As for monitoring comments and posts, Jordan said that on the rare occasions she has felt the need to remove something, she has always added a note explaining her actions. And she said the Facebook and Twitter communities themselves have done a fine job of policing the run-of-the-mill “UM sucks!” posts.
At Wisconsin, where there are nearly 500 social media accounts spread around campus, social media and internal communications manager John Lucas says they try to infuse the “inspired goofiness” that is UW’s personality into social media posts, differentiating those channels from the more stodgy, institutional character of the university’s traditional communications outlets. Among other things, that has meant polls and contests to collect reader photos into a Flickr stream, or using Storify to gather faculty tweets in the immediate aftermath of a major news event. Another notable effort was UWRightNow, highlighting 24 hours in the life of the campus with more than 1,000 photos, tweets, stories, blog posts and other items shared in real time from around the globe. As for less-successful ventures, John says, “It’s OK to fail — the web moves on.”
Blogs: Two intriguing efforts were LabLog, from Michigan’s College of Engineering, and Virginia’s UVaToday News Blog. LabLog focuses not on the end product of research (those dense and daunting peer-reviewed papers) nor on the awards won by researchers, but rather on the process of research, highlighting unusual methods, novel research tools, exotic locations, or serendipitous discoveries. It offers a good chance for storytelling rather than dry recitation of facts, and thus makes for unusually interesting reading, as well as a good media-pitching tool. The UVa News Blog also focuses on the lighter side of campus news, providing a home for odd, offbeat or quirky stories, YouTube embeds, nonvarsity sports, rankings, and a way to trumpet great outside media coverage.
Video: Teams from Michigan’s communications office and engineering school conducted a clinic on how to create great video with limited resources. They even shot, edited and posted a video of Huddle participants during the morning presentations. Among their tips:
- When filming, get in close and get comfortable with your subject
- Be authentic, not scripted
- Look for surprises, but sprinkle them throughout the video story
- Gather lots of ambient sound, and use it throughout the piece
- Look for emotions and conflict; that’s what will hook viewers
- Conduct interviews in the field, not the office
- Avoid inverted pyramid style in videos. Or as Jean-Luc Godard puts it, “A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end … but not necessarily in that order.”
They recommend asking video subjects to summarize their story in one sentence, and then using that condensed summary as a guide to shooting and editing down the final video.
Analytics: Demographics for your social media followers and interactions (age, gender) can help guide you to the best stories for promoting in those channels. On the web, analytics — showing who your audience is, and what they’re interested in — can help you choose what to cover, and then support that decision among higher-ups. They can also give you ideas about when best to post items (e.g. Rutgers found that student videos received the most traffic when posted on Thursdays and Fridays).
Arts reporting: Michigan has a separate portal (montage.umich.edu) to spotlight stories from the arts and humanities, and an editor whose primary focus is on finding, writing and linking to such stories. They use video whenever possible to bring the stories to life, even short, YouTube-quality video. And they meet monthly with communications folk from the relevant departments and schools to sort through potential story ideas.
Press releases: Rutgers, which launched a NewsCenter-style news site a couple of years ago, has moved away from writing traditional press releases, yet has found that their stories still get carried by traditional media (as links, rewrites, even wholesale verbatim pickups). Now they primarily write directly for the end reader, and pitch stories to the media via emails that include a summary of the story, a link to the online version at Rutgers Today, and sometimes a bulleted list of highlights or key facts to pique a reporter’s interest.
Get a life: A presentation on how to cover the news without burning yourself out included the following recommendations:
- Telecommute or use flexible scheduling (e.g. four 10-hour days)
- Use cloud-based systems like Google Docs instead of server-based storage that limits your physical location
- Hire student interns and work-study staff
- Take a laptop and head out onto campus to work for a few hours
- Schedule publication times to match your audience traffic patterns. In particular, if you have a CMS, use it to publish stories around 7 a.m. so visitors have something fresh to read after they fire up their computers.