Today, boys and girls, we are going to learn a little lesson. Professor Eduflack is going to go back to his roots and discuss some issues of media outreach, knowing your audience, and maximizing the factors of the technology available to you. Our teaching tool today is a case study.
Yesterday, a well-meaning and earnest PR consultant sent out an email on behalf of a client (and yes, for the purpose of this story, I see no reason to name the specific client caught up in this). The email arrived under the subject line: “Urgent: Gainful Employment Rule.” The sender tried to be a little self-deprecating, noting he was sending a “dreaded pitch email.”
The email went on to say:
In the next 10 days, the Department of Education will issue a rule on “Gainful Employment” – a rule that would cut off federal funding options for students attending for-profit colleges (for example, Kaplan Higher Education, American Career Institute, ITT Technical Institute, Stratford University, and New Horizons) unless the colleges could demonstrate certain graduation rates or levels of student debt.
These rules would be unique to these colleges (no public or private schools would be required to meet the same standards) and would significantly adversely affect students of color in particular, as these colleges educate a disproportionate percentage of minority students.
I know what you’re saying. What’s the big deal? Typical pitch from a typical PR firm. The for-profit colleges (or another group, in this case) write a check to gin up some attention for this battle and to hopefully gain some sympathetic media coverage. In this case, the flack notes that the rule is harmful to African-Americans, the U.S. Department of Education has miscalculated the issue, the law is being pushed by those dreaded “short sellers” on Wall Street, and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. himself is opposed to the proposed Gainful Employment regs.
But here is where the wheels came off. The email pitch was sent to a veritable case of thousands, mainstream media reporters and bloggers alike. Those bloggers included both “media” bloggers, those individuals representing legitimate media organizations and bloggers like Eduflack, who write about opinions far less than facts and preach rather than interview PR company clients to write thoughtful and balanced pieces. And it meant including advocacy groups and the rest on the same pitch as the MSM.
How do I know? That’s the real problem we’ll talk about this morning, class. That entire list was included in the CC field of the email. Instead of putting us all in the BCC field, where no one knows who was a recipient, we were all put on a list. And that’s where this “failure to communicate” truly occurred.
The first shot across the bow came from Sherman Dorn, the Florida college professor who blogs under the same name. He noted, for the entire group to read, that “I’m firmly in favor of the gainful-employment rule. You’re ignoring the fact that our taxes are going to support loans that go into your client’s pockets, and often it’s students who have to pick up the tab after dropping out.”
Then we all heard from Craig Smith of the American Federation of Teachers. Smith was a little less kind, starting with a sentence noting that the flack’s “email below contains several inaccurate statements and implications.” He continues that “the most egregious is the statement that the gainful employment regulation applies only to for-profit colleges. Not true.” He then notes Congressman Jackson actually “voted AGAINST an amendment in the House to block the gainful employment regulation.” And wraps up by writing, “In fact, to describe the minority community as split is a total misrepresentation.”
One of the most interesting exchanges, though, came from Whitney TIlson, the managing partner of T2 Partners LLC. Tilson is presumably on the list because of the terrific email listserve he puts out on education reform issues (and really just on K-12 education issues, I might add). Tilson begins by noting, “As one of the founders of Democrats for Education Reform, it’s not often that I agree with the AFT on something, but this is certainly the case here. This industry exploits low income and minority citizens just like the subprime housing industry did (And, yes, I’m one of the nefarious short sellers…)” Then he provides a nice little compendium of recent coverage and discussion in the MSM on this very topic.
Why is this important? What started as a typical media pitch aimed primarily at the MSM (at least based on the distribution list) quickly became a street corner debate on the issue of gainful employment, with all the powerful personalities siding against the original pitch. It devolved so much, because of the failure to hide recipients, that a member of the MSM finally asked to be removed from the exchanges, considering the back and forth “spam.” And for those members of MSM thinking about covering, they heard some strong opinions why the original pitch carried no water.
So what are the lessons learned here, at least for those flacking for others? A few come to mind:
* Learn about the media you are pitching — The majority of the reporters, both MSM and bloggers, are K-12 focused. Most of them have never written about issues such as gainful employment. This was probably not how you wanted to introduce it to them. So take the time to tailor the pitch. Show us how this debate links to K-12 accountability discussions … or high school graduation rates … or something.
* A cigar sometimes isn’t just a cigar — You need to pitch the MSM differently than you pitch bloggers. As an independent blogger, I get pitched several times a day. I now have enormous empathy for those reporters I used to bug regularly with faxes (yes, faxes, I’m that old) and emails. Show me you have actually read a post of mine, and not just pulled my name off a media database that IDs me as someone who writes about education. Personalization goes much, much further than a mass email, particularly with some of us bloggers, who are even more cynical than your typical reporter.
* Tell a story — This pitch lacked a story. It was a string of facts, many of which were disputed over the spam of six or so hours. When one starts a pitch noting that the issue is “controversial, and urgent” it usually means it isn’t. If you have to tell me a topic is important, because I don’t realize it myself, it says something.
* Don’t offer to guest blog — Please, don’t offer to provide a guest blog from your client. Again, read the blogs you are targeting. Do we even post guest blogs? If not, don’t offer a list of more than a hundred a guest blog, particularly when those MSM blogs are written by the reporters themselves, and many of us “other bloggers” write with a distinct opinion and through our own voice.
* Use the BCC — Please, please, please use the BCC field when doing a media distribution. I find it fascinating to know who was pitched as part of this little experiment. But for the good of your client and for the good of the reputation of the firm you work for, please don’t turn a basic media p
itch into a faculty senate discussion.