EWA Community Member Insights: Making Sure Your Voice Is Heard
EWA is at Vanderbilt University this week for our 67th National Seminar. We invited some of our community members to contribute posts from some of the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Swati Pandey of The Broad Foundation.
When Felice Nudelman asked a group of college presidents to share their worst fears, the first was obvious: a crisis on campus. The second was a little more surprising.
“Other than a crisis spinning out of control, one fear was actually going into a newsroom,” said Nudelman, chancellor of Antioch University, a former New York Times executive, and a panelist at EWA’s workshop for community members: Making Sure Your Voice is Heard. “To me it seems like a welcoming, benign environment, but that was on their list as a fear,” Nudelman said.
But actually getting to know reporters is the key step for community members eager to increase awareness about their organizations, Nudelman said. Her fellow panelist Scott Widmeyer of Widmeyer Communications echoed the sentiment before a crowd of about 40 attendees at Vanderbilt University, most of whom worked in communications for nonprofit organizations.
“You have to be real and relevant and gain the trust of the reporters,” Widmeyer said.
For Nudelman and Widmeyer, that meant being frank and consistent without being overbearing. The panelists encouraged community members to connect their organizational leaders or expert sources with reporters whenever possible, even when reporters couldn’t assure coverage on a particular subject. Meeting with new reporters on the beat offers community members a chance to share resources and help a writer get up to speed.
When meeting with reporters, community members should be prepared to talk about the big-picture landscape of education and the news of the day—not just one’s latest pitch—and be well-versed in a reporter’s past stories. Speaking on background or off the record when necessary is fine, Widmeyer said, as long as community members can be a consistent and honest source of information.
“Always have something to say,” Widmeyer said, whether in person or on a bimonthly or quarterly phone call or email exchange. Nudelman also noted the importance of not pitching every single little story.
“I don’t try to get coverage for a new statue we built or things like that,” she said.
With a relationship established, Nudelman said, organizations won’t find themselves in the position of making a desperate introduction during a time of crisis. Crises snowball into what Nudelman called “months of miserable media cycle” usually because an organization’s leader refused to talk to the press.
“The moment it went bad could be traced back to the decision not to confront,” she said. “By that point, it’s almost too late. You either have a relationship or you don’t. You either are known to be an honest broker or not.”
Widmeyer boiled down crisis communications to the “Three A’s”.
“Acknowledge the problem happened,” he said. “Act on it. Apologize…. No matter what the situation is, 95 percent of the time if you apply the Three A’s, it’s going to be okay.”
The panelists also offered some advice for what to do when facing trickier situations. Nudelman noted that when she once inherited a poor relationship with a local newspaper and couldn’t solve it through repeated meetings, she took a tougher tactic: refusing to give them a big story while handing it to other media. Soon, the publisher of the paper called her, and she was able to set the groundwork for a new relationship.
“There are other levers and tools you have,” she said. “If someone is not playing fair with you, with your organization, go to someone else. Always circle back, though, and try to rebuild the relationship.”
Social media also serves as an outlet for community members to control their messages, listen in on conversations related to them and their work, respond to inaccuracies, and engage allies—particularly those with large or active social media followings or those who can mobilize a larger group, like teachers or parents.
“Parents are the strongest voice out there in public education,” Widmeyer noted.
Sometimes support on social media can come from less likely places. Nudelman noted an instance when she mixed her tweets on education delivery with tweets about the Seattle Mariners featuring the hashtag #gomariners. That tag attracted an unexpected follower who began retweeting not just Nudelman’s sports tweets but also her education ones: a beauty queen who held the title of Miss Seattle.
“It was an epiphany about the hashtag being so important,” Nudelman said to laughs from the audience. “That was a beautiful moment in my life.”