GW intensifies media relations presence

Five new staff members have been hired to GW’s Office of Media Relations over the last six months in hopes of increasing the amount of media coverage the University receives, a University administrator said last week.

Two new media relations specialists, as well as new associate and executive directors for media relations and a sports information director, were hired as part of a shifted focus on reaching out to members of the media with content rather than simply fielding questions from the press.

“External Relations is a new division at the University and, as such, we have added several new members to our media relations team over the past several months to fill open positions and to repurpose some roles,” Vice President for External Relations Lorraine Voles said. “We think this structure allows for better strategic planning and more effective communication.”

While in the past, members of the media would usually contact one University spokesperson for official comment on a range of issues, GW current strategy uses media relations specialists specific and separate areas of the University.

“We have assembled a team with expertise in all aspects of media relations, including new media,” Voles said. “Our media team is proactive in finding story ideas and reaching out to student and external media with potential opportunities.”

In recent weeks, the media relations specialists have sent out e-mails to media outlets offering streaming video from GW experts on topics like the State of the Union and the Haiti relief efforts.

“They work closely with GW’s schools and colleges to feature the University’s experts, initiatives and accomplishments, and spotlight the many ways our students and faculty are making an impact – through public service, research, sustainability and more,” Voles said.

The media relations team also works with communications directors from GW’s separate schools and administrative departments to help promote events and achievements. Samara Sit, director of communication for the School of Media and Public Affairs, said she works with Emily Cain, a media relations specialist, to publicize SMPA events.

Jennifer Golden, director of Elliott School of International Affairs public affairs, said she works with the Office of Media Relations in a similar capacity.

“The Elliott School Office of Public Affairs communicates regularly with the Office of External Relations,” Golden said. “We all work toward the same mission – promoting GW and its resources to our constituents,” Golden said. “Since we’re located at 1957 E St. and have the opportunity to focus specifically on one school, we’re able to assist GW media relations in reaching the Elliott School community, and they have the resources to help us communicate with a larger GW audience and the greater public.”

The recent expansion of the media operation is part of a growing trend that colleges and universities nationwide are adopting to increase name recognition, said Scott Jaschik, an editor at Inside Higher Ed, an online trade publication for higher education.

“It’s not unusual,” Jaschik said. “Generally, colleges pay a lot of attention to having their programs written about. GW is also cognizant of their position in the research community. They want to be known in a certain way.”

Jaschik added that over the past several years, the role of a media relations office has broadened. Staffers no longer simply provide comments for reporters who contact the office, but also push media outlets to cover certain stories or use faculty members’ expert opinions in their coverage.

“It is the norm for them to be pushing stories, not just fielding calls,” Jaschik said.

Before 2008, the media relations office fell under GW’s Communications Division, headed by Michael Freedman, who today serves as director of GW’s Global Media Institute.

Freedman said his office dealt with media relations, communication during crises, and planning for University events.

“I think you’ll find that both models are well accepted within higher education,” Freedman said. “You could always use more people to handle the enormous amount of activity at an institution as vibrant as GW. That’s because media relations is responsible for much more than just responding to questions.”

Jaschik said that at many universities, media relations offices have now been included in larger departments that deal with university relations or marketing. Universities like Syracuse and Northwestern have media relations teams with eight or more staff members.

At Boston University – one of GW’s peer group institutions – the media relations office is included under the university’s Department of Marketing and Communications and is responsible for pushing stories about BU to media outlets.

“We have a very active model of getting our faculty out in major publications across the country,” said Colin Riley, executive director of media relations for Boston University. “We’ve been doing it for the longest time.”

Overall, Voles said the shift in focus for the media relations department provides a better opportunity to plan and communicate.

“We are trying our best to be a customer-friendly operation,” Voles said.

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