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5 Things PR Can Learn From College Admissions

PR lessons college
It’s college admissions season, and there are surprisingly many parallels between public relations work and the process of gaining acceptance to the school of your choice. For all who’ve been through it, or have accompanied family members, it can be a trying, angst-ridden time, but there’s much to be learned. Here are five things PR practitioners can learn from the college admissions process.

Cast a wide net, but not too wide. College applicants are advised to apply to enough schools to ensure acceptance somewhere, but not too many schools so as to wear oneself out (or break the bank). With pitching stories to media, it’s equally important to cast a wide enough net to ensure some success for story placement. But blasting hundreds of journalists has pitfalls. Media appreciate personalized pitches and are aggravated by boilerplate emails to massive lists.. In creating a media list, include some “safeties,” just as students are advised with schools, along with a few “reaches,” and a handful in between.

Know your targets. Many a high school student and family make the college circuit tour, visiting schools (especially their top picks) to try to get to know them better. Some schools are taking note, documenting visits to their campuses as part of the applicant’s file to note keen interest in attending, if accepted. The same should go for PR pros and media. Journalists tell us again and again how important it is for PR people to understand their publication and their particular beat. Taking care to know what the journalist covers and how the publication handles certain topics and features goes a long way toward convincing a reporter your story is a fit.

Understand the key to acceptance is in the merits of the story. No amount of research and diligence will lead to acceptance for a college applicant who has not already built a strong case over years of hard work. Likewise, a pitch is much more likely to earn media interest if it’s based on real content — a compelling, credible story, backed up by proof. Such attributes are built up over time, often long before a company is ready for PR. Publicists are often asked to make news when there isn’t any, but when the foundation for newsworthiness is already there, the chance for success is much greater. 

Don’t be too wowed by big names. Big names impress many college applicants (and their parents), to the detriment of lesser known schools that might be a better fit for the student’s particular needs. Clients can sometimes be similarly fixated on big media brands, even though other publications might have better potential to reach desired audiences. We’ve seen companies land placements in top-tier media with little impact on their business, while stories in a less celebrated publication drive business because they’re precisely focused. A brand name story is nice for the ego, but often real business impact is about the finding the right fit.

Have some levity. The PR world was chagrined this week when it became public that many publicists took seriously a satirical column Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times, bemoaning how Stanford boasted a zero percent acceptance rate this year. Media outlets shared pitches from PR pros representing college admissions experts, offering to comment on the “zero acceptance rate.” A mini lesson one of our staffers noted here: when in doubt, check multiple sources! The overall lesson? PR can be challenging and stressful. Take the work seriously, but not so much that you miss the opportunity to have a good laugh. It can do wonders in the long run.

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