5 tips to uncover small-but-mighty stories to sustain your higher ed. PR strategy.

From your institution’s Rhodes Scholars and Nobel laureates to your biggest research breakthroughs, your communication and PR teams are seasoned in pushing the most impressive news to the press and scoring points for your institution’s reputation. 

But what about telling and selling all the worthy but unheard stories that bubble up in between? 

In the pursuit of evolving your institution’s reputation and increasing its brand awareness, no story is too small, no hero too unsung. Enter the every-student.

In truth, those underrated, overlooked anecdotes have even more potential to connect with your audience and make your institution stand apart from the crowd. Plus, a regular stream of stories act like a sustainable campaign that leverages your brand. 

It’s time to lift the curtain on the underrated and unheard of and get those stories in front of the people who need to hear them. 

Establish a PR strategy for mining the hidden gems on your higher ed. institution’s campus.

Sussing out less obvious stories doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes a coordinated effort from different teams plugged into a lot of places and channels. 

To make this happen, your communications and marketing teams need to be aligned. Together, you must have your collective finger on the proverbial pulse with the unified goal of elevating the not-so-obvious. 

Your teams should be charged with knowing what’s going on, being at the forefront of information, and keeping each other in the loop. They shouldn’t just react to stories, but have the mindset of being proactive enough to seek them out before they’re told by anyone else.

Assign certain staff to regularly reach out to student and faculty groups throughout campus. Social media should constantly be mined for any hint of a sentimental story as well. Gen Z lives online; one scroll through TikTok and we’d be surprised if you didn’t find a newsworthy story to uncover.

Your story-finding efforts shouldn’t stop with scrolling students’ socials. Attend events, sit in on classes and seek out the sophomores and grad student assistants alike who will never win a Nobel prize, yet still have a fascinating background (that so many more people could relate to). 

Marketing and communications pros were trained to have an ear for good stories, so put those skills to good use.

Is your higher ed. public relations story newsworthy?

When you’re planning a higher ed. media relations campaign, it’s a good idea to evaluate whether you actually have a newsworthy story on your hands. ED’s PR team has put together this quick and easy quiz to help you determine whether your institution’s story is likely to earn media coverage for your college or university.
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How a quirky, student-invented game caught the attention of an architectural magazine.

When it comes to telling a good story that sets your institution apart, take a page from the University of Manitoba (U of M). They pitched their campus’ quirky annual event and caught the attention of a major national magazine. 

In the 1970s, architecture students hatched a plan to do something crazy – and the university supported it. Before the snow melt in spring, the university’s bulldozers and snowplows would plow huge walls of snow on the Faculty of Architecture’s lot to make one deep, long ditch. Water would be poured on the floor of the ditch to form a thick sheet of ice. Students designed their own costumes, constructed a giant ball or ​​rhombicuboctahedron, and formed teams. Ditchball was born.

Winter after snowbound winter, architecture students would look forward to the showdown. The no-holds-barred-mock-rugby-on-ice-tackle-championship became a signature event on campus, the stuff of legend.

One year as the annual tradition approached, the university’s communications team pushed the story to its usual media list — and pitched it to Canadian Architecture for good measure. (Industry and trade publications should never be off the table!)

Lo and behold, the CA editor reached out, saying, “I received your wonderful press release on Ditchball at the University of Manitoba. I think that it was one of most entertaining press releases that we’ve received in a long while. And yes, we’re going to do a story on that.” 

Ditchball, as a story, had legs. And unmatched visuals and audio. It was a unique, beloved tradition on campus that spanned generations of alumni – and brought them out to the annual event, too. And it was refreshingly different enough to be noticed by a venerable national news magazine. 

Sadly, Ditchball was discontinued because of safety concerns. But that hasn’t stopped students from carrying on the spirit of the spring semester tradition in safer ways.

What’s delightfully different within the walls of your campus that could have the same effect and reach a different, but still relevant, audience? We’re sure you could think of something. And if not, we’re seasoned experts who’d be happy to help.

5 ideas for gleaning the small stories worth spreading.

Your institution’s campus is pulsing with potential stories. Most of them won’t surface on their own — you’ll have to go looking for them. 

Here’s how to draw up some inspiration to reveal the interesting, unbelievable, heartfelt, and motivational stories hiding on campus.

  1. Have fun. Schools are pretty serious places, but we believe there’s room (and cause!) for loosening up. May we recommend instituting a comedy hour over lunch in your student union center? Can we suggest pulling off something completely off the wall on April Fool’s Day? What about having some fun around campus on social media like Royal Rhodes University in Victoria, BC did recently. They tweeted a snowy staircase on campus with a (photoshopped) ski run sign named after one their famous alumni, astronaut Chris Hadfield. A lively exchange ensued and it was a fun break in content.
  2. Get personal. Vanity Fair has its famous Proust Questionnaire. Why not make up your own and send it to different student and faculty groups on campus to fill out and return? Or throw it out to social media, asking questions to get people talking, such as, “Congratulations! The job you dreamed of when you were 5 is now yours! So what do you do for a living?” Get them thinking about the inflection points in their life, special people and places that have shaped them into who they are. Even hidden talents! You never know: You might have an accomplished ultrarunner who just completed a 160 km race and just happens to be a department chair in the business school. That’s a story begging to be told.
  3. Find the turning points. Reach out to your alumni and prompt them look back on their life and find the turning points. What life-altering events took place to take them where they are today? You might find out your top biochemistry student in 2008 is now head developer of a successful B2B SaaS product in sun-drenched San Diego and her path to getting there involved something completely miraculous.
  4. Capitalize on faux holidays. From the odd to the awesome, there always seems to be a new “Happy ______ Day” trending on Twitter. Use this weird phenomenon to your advantage by connecting stories to so-called holidays and you’ll have a ton of story ideas. For example, World Plumbing Day is on March 11. You could highlight your school’s plumbing diploma programs by writing an interesting feature on the history of the program, send out fun facts through social media, or host a student event in appreciation of plumbers. There are endless possibilities and all you need is a calendar.
  5. Encourage annual off-the-wall events. Look what happened with Ditchball! Invite signature events from every corner of campus and there will be story opportunities galore. Sustaining annual events is not only fun, but rife with potential content, plus it keeps alumni engaged.

Bolster your higher ed. institution’s sustained storytelling with a solid PR & marketing strategy.

If a story gets written but no one hears about it… does it really exist? Not in this digital age. You have to get your stories out to all demographics of your audience if you want them to have any impact whatsoever, and that requires a strategy.

Of course, there are channels you shouldn’t dismiss when pitching and distributing your stories, like:

  • Traditional media (news releases, pitches to reporters, exclusives, announcements, events).
  • Social media like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. 
  • Owned assets like your institution’s website, school blogs and bulletin boards.
  • Unconventional mediums like guerilla marketing/experiential/pop-ups/social media takeovers. 

But you need an action plan when it comes to promoting your stories to all those channels. And that’s where we come in. 

At ED, we’re well-versed in ideating campaigns that lead to great stories, identifying key audiences and their preferred channels, and calculating a deployment strategy to get all your compelling content in front of them. 
If you want to start telling and selling the small-but-mighty stories (or need help telling the big ones) just know: We’re ready when you are.

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