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Media Relations

Tomorrow's Academy

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Leaders also need to remember the admonition of Mark Twain, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.”


The posting below looks at components of an effective media strategy for higher education institutions.  It is from Chapter 6, Governance, Communication and Community Relations  in the book Practical Leadership in Community Colleges: Navigating Today’s Challenges, by George R. Boggs and Christine J. McPhail. John Wiley. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Reflections on the Role of Trustees in Current Controversies


Tomorrow’s Academy

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Media Relations


Most of the nation’s community colleges are publicly owned and governed by either elected or appointed trustees. But perhaps the most important link to the public is through the media (newspapers, television, radio, and social media). The media itself is rarely an issue for leadership, but it can have an effect on how significant an issue will be. It is wise for leaders to make media relations a priority. In fact, Fischer and Koch (1996) make the point that the media can make or break a president. The authors wrote:


The president’s off-campus image is composed of a jumble of impressions formed by a relatively inattentive public. However, this image is the major factor in developing a public presence and an aura of charisma. In the great majority of cases, print and broadcast media (and especially television) are the prime instruments for creating an image. Play these forums as a virtuoso plays violin, although, like most virtuosos, you may seldom be satisfied with the reviews. A direct connection will not always exist between your public image at any moment and the immediate response you wish to receive, but the general public’s prevailing impression of a president’s standing will set the tone and determine the limits of what faculty, students, staff, alumni, trustees, politicians, public figures, bureaucrats, and potential benefactors will do for the president. Even the most experienced, important, and sophisticated people make judgments based on how many people admire an individual. (Fisher and Koch, 1996, p. 193)


Leaders also need to remember the admonition of Mark Twain, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Leaders should strive to develop and maintain a positive and respectful relationship with the media. Too often we have seen college leaders portrayed in a negative light. When that happens, the leader is sometimes helpless to respond appropriately to a tidal wave of media criticism (Carroll, 2004). If the leader responds without a strategy, it usually exacerbates the problem.


One of AACC’s core leadership competencies is the capacity to build and leverage networks and partnerships to advance the mission, vision, and goals of the college. Certainly, a key partnership that community college leaders must develop is one with the local media, and it should be developed strategically. It is important for leaders to develop a media relations strategy based upon what they want to achieve from the media rather than randomly calling reporters when they need coverage or are responding to a crisis. Components of an effective media relations strategy include the following actions:


1.     Identify a Spokesperson. Trustees and college leaders need to determine who can speak for the college in the event of a crisis or difficult issue. The media will usually exploit any differences in accounts or opinions in a story about a crisis or difficult issue, so consistency of message is important.

2.     Be Proactive. Leaders should get to know editors of local newspapers before a crisis occurs. Bring positive stories to the attention of the media. Include human interest stories about students, faculty, and staff. Reporters appreciate receiving tips to develop their own stories, but they need advance notice of an event in order to do so. When you know of an anticipated announcement of an event, give the media a “heads-up” so reporters have adequate time to prepare.


Although it may seem counterintuitive, it is usually a good idea to inform the media of a negative story rather than risk its discovery from another source. This gives college leaders the opportunity to frame the story accurately. As an example, George Boggs, as a college president, discovered through an anonymous tip and a follow-up audit that the director of the college’s food services had embezzled thousands of dollars from the profits of sales. After an investigation to confirm guilt, he informed law enforcement and terminated the director’s employment with the college. A press release was issued, and the local newspapers printed the story in inside pages. There were no follow-up stories. An issue that could have been front-page news for an investigative reporter turned out to be a minor issue with no lasting consequence for the college.

3.     Be Available and Responsive.  Leaders should never say, “No comment,” when asked a question. Coombs (1998) discussed the importance of understanding the situation and developing responses based on an analytic framework for crisis situations. If something has to be confidential, provide the reasons that it has to be. Be mindful that the motivation of the press is to get a story written by the deadline. Leaders should get back to reporters with responses to their questions as soon as possible. If a leader needs some time to gather information, ask the reporter what his or her deadline is and try to meet it. The media’s ability to reach a leader when needed is critical to establishing the leader’s image as a reliable face of the college.

4.     Avoid Speaking off the Record.  Leaders need to be cautious about providing information that they do not want to see in print or that they do not want to see attributed to them.

5.     Use the Institution’s Website.  Leaders should use their college’s websites to communicate to the media. Many leaders overlook the importance of having a media-responsive website. It is wise for leaders to post a media link on the college’s home page that shows the name, email, and telephone number of at least one media contact person.

6.     Train Front-Line Employees. Leaders are encouraged to train college employees who may have to deal with media inquiries. This includes receptionists, athletic department staff, safety and security personnel, and others who need to know how to direct calls from the media. Key personnel should be trained on how to respond to the press in a positive and friendly manner, but all employees need to know that only designated individuals can speak for the college.

7.     Become the Local Higher Education Authority.  Community college leaders need to do a better job of serving as an information resource to the media on key education issues. One way is for leaders to provide updates to the media on major community college issues along with information about their local community colleges. The leader can also identify experts on the campus who can respond to commonly requested facts about newsworthy issues. Leaders should consider writing opinion editorials on significant educational and social issues for local newspapers.


Despite the best media relations strategies, crises can develop, subjecting the leader and the college to negative media coverage. When these situations happen, electronic media can spread negativity even before the average leader can make a single telephone call. Leaks to the media can come from a disgruntled employee, trustee, administrator, or student. Sometimes sensitive college decisions can create situations that reach a reporter’s ear. When the college receives negative coverage, leaders should respond as quickly and as accurately as possible. It is important to own up to any problems and begin to restore confidence in the college (Cohen, 1999). Cohen (1999) noted that an apology often helps restore a damaged relationship between the college and the internal or external community.


Throughout a media relations conflict, the leader must be available to talk as openly as possible with the media and to employees. Leaders who are not responsive or who respond with “No comment” appear to have something to hide. It sends the message that the institution is in the wrong, and it invites reporters to keep digging until they find something – or make it up (Dean, 2004). Coombs and Holladay (2004) pointed out the benefits of “reasoned action” in a crisis communication. They noted that an organization’s past affects the reputational threat posed by a crisis when it results from intentional acts by the organization. Coombs and Holladay’s Situational Crisis Communication Theory (SCCT) provides a mechanism for anticipating how stakeholders will react to a crisis in terms of the reputational threat posed by the crisis (2004). Communication is an important key to both building media relationships and solving the media relations problem.


Barnes and Lescault (2011) noted that higher education institutions are now experimenting and evaluating social media as a communication tool with their constituencies. Though much has been written about social media in the business field, and many community colleges have developed social media policies, there is a scarcity of information on how those policies are governed and the leader’s role in the media governance process. Michael Ansaldo (2015), a veteran consumer and small-business technology journalist with PCWorld, defined a social media governance model as follows:


A collection of policies, procedures, and educational resources that allow you to manage social media internally. A sound social media governance model empowers your employees while keeping them accountable. It allows you to quickly recover from a blow to your brand, or even sidestep it completely. It helps you keep your social initiatives on track and aligned with your business’ strategic goals.


Ansaldo’s (2015) media governance model consists of five components: 1) a social media policy that is designed to guide employees and to protect the institution, 2) training that is designed to educate employees how to represent the organization on the social web, 3) monitoring everything from shaping consumer sentiment about the institution’s brand to heading off a potential PR crisis, 4) a crisis management plan that outlines how the social media channels can be accessed to deliver a quick and appropriate response, and 5) frequent updates.  The leader should designate a social media governance team and a timeline for periodic evaluation of all elements of the social media governance model to assure it’s never outdated. Leaders must be mindful that while they have the responsibility for ensuring that the institution’s social media policy defines how employees use social media, they must also define their role in the governance of those policies (Ansaldo, 2015).


Zaiontz and Stoner (2015), in #Follow the Leader: Lessons in Social Media from #Higher Education CEOs, pointed out that college and university presidents are increasingly using social media such as Twitter and Facebook to engage both internal and external constituents. Zaiontz’s study confirmed the findings from 2013 Pew Research Center surveys (Parker, Lenhart, & Moor, 2011) that showed that leaders of the nation’s colleges and universities are generally a tech-savvy group.  The report illustrated that nearly nine in ten (87 percent) use a smartphone daily, 83 percent use a desktop computer, and 65 percent use a laptop.  Based on the Pew Research, presidents are ahead of the curve on some of the newer digital technologies: fully half (49 percent) use a tablet computer such as an iPad at least occasionally, and 42 percent use an e-reader such as a Kindle or Nook. The surveys also showed that roughly one-third of college presidents (32 percent) report that they use Facebook weekly or more often; 18 percent say they use Twitter at least occasionally. Presidents can, and do, make significant progress for their institutions through reaching out via social media.


Davis, Deil-Amen, and Canche (2011), researchers at Claremont Graduate School, found that a relatively low proportion of community college leaders reported that they never use social media for personal (8 percent) or professional (11 percent) purposes. Surprisingly, among those leaders who use social media daily, a higher proportion of them used it for personal (40 percent) rather than for professional (24 percent) purposes. The researchers provided a set of recommendations for community college leaders as they continue to think of purposeful ways to integrate social media into the fabric of their educational institutions. These recommendations include (1) have a strategic plan, (2) get buy-in from executive leadership, faculty, and staff about the importance of social media, (3) think about your resources, (4) add value by using social media applications and other social media platforms, (5) maintain privacy and confidentiality, and (6) define your metrics to assess the effectiveness of social media.


It is clear from the research and our engagement with community college leaders that they are using social media to connect with each other and share information and ideas (Solis, 2008). Through the use of social media, some community colleges leaders are reshaping their leadership platforms to connect with and inform constituent groups.  Indeed, community college leaders are in some ways redefining leadership through their varied use of social media.



Ansaldo, M. (2015). Five Components of a Social Media Governance Model. PC World. Retrieved from: Retrieved from:

Carroll, C.E. (2004). How the Mass Media Influence Perceptions of Corporate Reputation: Exploring Agenda-Setting Effects within Business News Coverage. Diss., University of Texas, Austin.

Cohen, J.R. (1999). Advising Clients to Apologize. Southern California Law Review, 72, 1009-1131.

Coombs, W.T. (1998). An Analytic Framework for Crisis Situations: Better Responses from a Better Understanding of the Situation. Journal of Public Relations Research, 10, 177-191.

Coombs, W.T., & Holladay, S.J. (2004). Reasoned Action in Crisis Communication: An Attribution Theory-Based Approach to Crisis Management. In D.P. Millar & R.L. Heath (Eds.), Responding to Crisis: A Rhetorical Approach to Crisis Communication (pp. 95-115). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dean, D.H. (2004). Consumer Reaction to Negative Publicity: Effects of Corporate Reputation, Response, and Responsibility for a Crisis Event. Journal of Business Communications, 41, 192-211.

Fisher, J.L., & Koch, J.V. (1996). Presidential Leadership: Making a Difference. American Council on Education. Series on Higher Education. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Parker, K., Lenhart, A., & Moor, K. (2011, August 28). The Digital Revolution and Higher Education: College Presidents, Public Differ on Value of Online Learning. Retrieved from:

Solis, B. (2008). Introducing the Conversation Prism. Retrieved from:

Ziaontz, D., & Stoner, M. (Ed.) (2015), #Follow the Leader: Lessons in Social Media from #Higher Ed CEOs. St. Louis, Missouri: EDUniverse M