Higher education: Two public relations case studies

Higher education: Two public relations case studies

Roger Yarrington Higher Education: Two Public Relations Case Studies Higher education associations located in tlle nation's capital traditionally hav...

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Roger Yarrington

Higher Education: Two Public Relations Case Studies Higher education associations located in tlle nation's capital traditionally have performed all the activities associated with membership organizations: conferences, publications and tlle operation of a central headquarters for their members. However, these two case studies indicate that they are becoming more adept at another job: national public relations programming. This article traces the development and implementation of an information program {nounted to combat proposed cuts in student financial aid and a more general program designed to generate overall support for higher education. The author describes strategies and step-by-step execution of key points in an interesting "behind-the-scenes" review of both programs. Roger Yarrington is associate dean of the College of Journalism, University of Maryland, in College Park, Md.


ssociations representing higher education in Washington, D.C., began two ambitious public relations efforts in 198LiThe associations involved did not have histories of working together on,national public relations programs. It is notable that two such efforts were mounted the same year. The programs are interesting because they involved cooperation among organizations that represented different interests in higher education; the programs were national in scope; they enlisted major support; and they were successful. The objectives of the two programs were different but complementary. One sought to counteract the Reagan administration's proposals for further cuts in student financial aid programs by arousing public awareness of the effects of the reductions. The other set out to galvanize public support for higher education in general through messages emphasizing the important contributions it has made in the past and must make in the future. Different patterns of cooperation were involved. One program was a cooperative effort by 20 associations with leadership and coordination pro40

Hi~her Education. vided by an "'umbrella" council. The other effort was conducted by one specialized association on behalf of, and with encouragement and support from, the others. The "specialized" association, not surprisingly, is made up of college public affairs professionals.

Action Committee for Higher Education Late in 1981, governmental affairs officers of the American Council on Education (ACE) became convinced that the Reagan administration was preparing additional large reductions in federal student aid programs for fiscal 1983. The higher education community had accepted, with little resistance, sizable budget cuts for fiscal 1982 as its "fair share" of a national effort to reduce federal spending. However, the 1983 cuts, when added to those for 1982, seemed unnecessarily severe, approaching a 50 percent reduction from 1981 levels. More important, the reductions constituted a renunciation of the federal government's 25-year policy of trying to achieve universal opportunities in higher education. In 1980, the new Reagan administration, still flushed with victory and with a mandate to cut spending, recommended across-the-board reductions of 12 percent for fiscal 1982. In the drawn-out budget process, student financial aid programs were slashed three times: once in the original Reagan budget proposal, again in the budget reconciliation act, and yet again in the fiscal 1982 appropriations. Student aid emerged from this process with reductions amounting to nearly 12 percent, although other social service programs took cuts amounting to approximately 4 percent. When leaks began to indicate the size of the student aid budget planned by the administration for 1983, the leadership of the American Council on Education felt it was time for higher education to resist. The colleges and students had taken more than their fair share of reductions the previous year. The American Council on Education is the umbrella organization for all higher education in the United States. It is both an association of colleges of all types--two and four-year, public and private--and a council of associations. The Council serves to convene and coordinate when associations representing specific types of colleges and functions need to work together. Coordination has been most consistent among the governmental affairs officers who represent the associations" interests on Capitol Hill, although such coordination has been somewhat limited at times because the interest of colleges of different sizes, types, and sponsorship are sometimes split on specific legislative issues. Coordination of the broader public relations efforts, aimed at the general public and the mass media, was attempted several times in recent years but was less consistent. Charles Saunders, a veteran advocate for higher education and former HEW official, is ACE vice president for governmental relations. He and his colleagues learned from contacts inside the administration what the Reagan 1983 budget proposals for student aid were likely to be several weeks before the information was officially released. Bob Aaron, director of public affairs 41

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for ACE, alerted his counterparts, the public relations officers of the other associations, and they began drafting a national program to tell the public what the effects of the proposed cuts would be. A strategy meeting was convened in December 1981, by J.W. Peltason, president of ACE. The presidents of the other higher education associations indicated they were prepared to cooperate in an unprecedented national public information campaign aimed at students, parents, the media, and ultimately, the Congress. Each association was asked to contribute funds and some time from its public relations office. Five associations contributed $10,000 or more, several others contributed slightly less, and others contributed what they could from their budgets, most of which had not anticipated any such expenses. A fund of just under $95,000 was put together. Office space was contributed by the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges at One Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C., where most of the educational associations are located. An Action Committee staff was created, primarily Aaron, Nancy Raley from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, and other public relations officers from associations representing state colleges, land-grant colleges, independent colleges, Catholic colleges, graduate schools, and associations representing trustees, professors, business officers, minorities and others. In January the Action committee informed the higher education comm u n i t y - including student groups and colleges across the country--that it was in business. It prepared its first press kit, set up a toll-free hot line, and scheduled a press conference for February 2, a week before President Reagan was to announce his budget recommendations. Aaron refers to that press conference as a "pre-emptive first strike." The higher education community was in a unique position--it was prepared to counter the administration's proposals with data on the effects of budget cuts before the proposed reductions were announced. Garven Hudgins, public information officer for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, and a former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, alerted public affairs officers of NASULGC institutions by mailgram that there would be a major press conference affecting them on February 2. He suggested that they alert local and state media and have them request coverage by AP. "'It is an old device," he said. "'The papers that are members of AP request coverage. The AP covers the event. And w h e n the story comes back over the wire, the papers go back to area colleges for information on local ramifications." The January kit was sent to colleges across the country. It contained a five-page press release explaining the complicated student aid programs and budget process. The lead was: The Reagan administration will send to Congress next month a new federal budget severely slashing five U.S. programs aimed at helping students p a y for college and university educations. 42




The release identified the five student aid programs: 9 PeU grants, formerly called basic educational opportunity grants (BEOG), which would be cut 45 percent from 1981 levels; 9 College work-study funding, which would be reduced 27 percent; 9 Supplemental educational opportunity grants (SEOG), state student incentive grants (SSIG), and national direct student loans (NDSL), all of which would be eliminated. Guaranteed student loans (GSL) would have increased fees and interest rates and would eliminate graduate student participation. Social security benefits going to students were already scheduled to be phased out by 1985, so they would be cut in 1983 as well. The release said the proposed cuts in the Pell grants alone would remove 1 million students from the program. Another 1.3 million students would lose awards from the other program cuts proposed. The committee used quotes from each of the recent Presidents, from Eisenhower to Carter, to illustrate the national commitment to achieve educational opportunity for all citizens. In addition to the news release, which could be adapted by colleges for local use, there were draft op ed pieces and editorials, color-coded fact sheets on each of the student aid programs and on the congressional budget process, a directory of association media contacts, and suggestions on how to set up a campus action committee. The press release in the second media kit, prepared for the February 2 press conference on Capitol Hill, had this lead: President Reagan's fiscal 1983 budget--halving student aid programs for the 1983-84 school year, by which time college costs are expected to climb another 15-20 percentn"would put collegebeyond the reach of several hundred thousand young Americans,'" J. W. Pelta~on, president of the American Council on Education, charged today. When the administration presented its budget, the Action Committee's forecasts of the proposed cuts and the materials it had provided the press were on target. "The media and the public had a better understanding of student financial aid programs and the effects of the proposed cuts because of the Action Committee's work," Charles Saunders said. "It took the initiative away from the Administration." During February and March the clipping service commissioned by the Action Committee prodflced 2,000 newspaper clippings and radio and TV transcripts that resulted from information provided by the committee. The committee embarked on a huge photocopying project. Clippings were grouped by congressional districts, copied, and sent to members of Congress to be sure they had not been overlooked--and that the impressive totals were made apparent. The media attention generated increased letters, phone calls, and visits by students and parents to congressmen. Some colleges organized schedules for calling that kept their congressmen's lines busy for days. 43

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A third media kit was produced in March. Copies were sent to the associations' combined press lists as well as to the colleges. It contained additional releases and fact sheets. It pointed out the effects the proposed budget cuts would have at a time when college costs are going up and noted that such a move was at odds with public opinion as measured by a February Newsweek poll and a March Washington Post--ABC poll. The fact sheets explained further who received student aid and in what amounts. The losses to be suffered by states and by colleges were presented in data displays. Further, the contributions of higher education to the U.S. and local economies were detailed using data from federal sources. By the end of March, the Action Committee was receiving letters from congressmen "clarifying" their positions on student aid. Virtually all of them, including prominent conservative legislators in the forefront of the "'supply-side" and "Reaganomics" supporters, said, "I am with you." Network radio and television coverage began to snowball. Association officials familiar with the intricacies o f s t u d e n t aid and the budget process found themselves in d e m a n d for interviews and talk shows. The CBS Evening News did a five-minute segment on a Saturday and Charles Saunders debated Secretary of Education Terrell Bell on a CBS Morning News program. A fourth press kit was produced for a May 12 press conference. Media and congressional responses to the proposed cuts were distributed as were the higher education community's response to some Senate budget committee proposals that would have put a freeze on student grant pr6grams for three years and eliminated GSL interest subsidies. More fact sheets and policy statements by the associations were distributed. All three networks, plus the Mutual radio network, covered the news conference. This effort, along with the Action Committee's day-to-day work on the hot line responding to questions from colleges and reporters, produced an additional 4,000 clippings by July. Of the editorials clipped, 95 percent were favorable to the Action Committee. Many of the clippings were generated by colleges using the committee's materials in local interviews and in commencement addresses. A June 3 article by Bryce Nelson for the Los Angeles Times, reprinted in other papers, was one of the Action Committee's favorites because it illustrated in specific human terms the effects of the national data being provided by the committee from Washington. Nelson told of a 37oyear-old mother in Kentucky, wife of a disabled miner, who got up at 4:30 a.m. each day to get four children off to school and then drove 30 miles to Pikeville College. She was dependent on student aid to better herself and her family and said, "I'm on pins and needles about whether these cutbacks they're talking about in Washington will stop me from finishing college. If things were cut so much I couldn't to to school, I'd rather have a knife in my back." Bob Aaron displays file drawers full of such newspaper stories from a l l over the country. The clippings are from small local papers and others such 414

Hi~her Education as the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, St. Louis Post-

Dispatch, Detroit Free Press, San Francisco Chronicle, Miami Herald, Christian Science Monitor and Wall Street Journal, as well as magazines pieces from Money, Congressional Quarterly, Ladies Home Journal, and others. "The LHJ piece produced a lot of mail and calls to us," Aaron said. "Their readers really responded." A second effort to send photocopies of recent clippings to congressmen from papers in their districts was begun in August in preparation for a mailing right after Labor Day. John Mallan, vice president for governmental relations at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said he and the legislative advocates of the other associations had been skeptical about the association public relations officers becoming involved in a substantive way. But the lobbyists changed their minds when they saw the hometown letters and newspaper articles being read by congressmen and their staffs. "We received many compliments from Hill staffers on the work the associations were doing," he said. "The congressional opponents of the Reagan budget cuts thought we had not done enough to fight the cuts the previous year." "Congressional staffers were in awe of the support higher education associations were able to muster," said Saunders. They told us, 'You guys have really done a job.' They felt like they had heard from higher education. They had a new respect for the interests of our constituency," he said. He was impressed that the complaints from home about the cuts prompted a g r o u p o f first-term conservative congressmen to issue a joint statement that they did not support further reductions in student aid. Even conservative Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah issued a release after the House and Senate conference on the budget resolution, claiming credit for stopping any further cuts in GSL. Other conservative members of Congress issued press releases for home consumption, distancing themselves from the Administration on reductions in student aid. Congress utilized a continuing resolution to keep funds flowing. In the end, the 1983 budget for student aid had essentially the same levels of spending as the previous year. Higher education did not gain large new funds from the work of the Action Committeee. But it held its own and that was regarded as a victory. The work of the Action Committee clearly had an effect. The President's proposals to cut student aid did not gain the support they had the previous year. His recommendations never captured the initiative. That belonged to the Action Committee from the beginning. "What we saw," said Saunders, "was a complete rejection by Congress of the President's proposals to further reduce student aid." William Blakey, counsel to the House subcommittee on postsecondary education, verified the effectiveness of the Action Committee campaign-so far. He said it was "'the first time the higher education community acted cohesively in its own self-interest. A successful effort was mounted." But, he cautioned, "the Administration will be back each year and the Action Committee will need to be there, too."


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David Morse of the Senate education subcommittee professional staff said essentially the same thing: "The higher education associations were much more successful last year than the previous year in bringing the proposed cuts and their effects to the attention of the public, especially those most affected." He pointed out that this is difficult to do because of "forward funding." The effects of budget cuts are not immediately felt by the public. Whether the Action Committee will mount a major effort again depends on h o w Congress responds to the President's request for 1984. The Administration is proposing to keep student aid at nearly the same budget level overall but to redistribute the funds among the student aid programs. For example, Pell grants, SEOGs, NDSLs, and SSIGs would be eliminated and replaced by "self-help grants." The new grants would be less available to families earning over $15,000 and students would have to pay a minimum of $800 or 40 per cent of college costs to receive such help. Work-study funds would be increased to promote the "self-help" concept. Guaranteed student loans would be harder to obtain because of stricter tests to show need. The net result is that some low-income students may receive more help, middle-income students less. That is a more difficult proposition for the associations to fight than a drastic across-the-board budget cut. And it presents a more difficult issue around which to rally unified opposition. The Administration's 1984 proposal may be a testimony to how much it was impressed with the strong, unified opposition the associations were able to mount to the cuts proposed for 1983. Bob Aaron and others involved agree with the assessment of Blakey that the committee is going to be needed again and again. But, Aaron confesses, "Success has bred some apathy. Many of the colleges feel the heat is off. It may be difficult to move them to act as promptly and as well in the future.'"

The Mindpower Campaign The Mindpower Campaign, conducted by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) with cooperation and support from 30 national associations and endorsements from 80 state associations, began in the s u m m e r of 1981 and is expected by CASE leaders to run at least two more years. CASE is an association involving higher education "advancement" professionals: persons with assignments in development, public relations, and alumni work. It was formed through a merger of two associations-the American College Public Relations Assodation and the American Alumni Council. When James Fisher came to CASE as president in 1978, the council conducted a survey to determine the services the members wanted most. One item clearly identified was more national media attention. CASE responded with the Mindpower Campaign. 46

H|l~her E d u c a t i o n Charles Helmken, vice president and special assistant to the president of CASE, proposed the idea of the Mindpower Campaign in the fall of 1979. The concept was approved by the CASE board in the summer of 1980. No budget was allocated. The staff was told it would have to raise the necessary funds. In the months that followed, more than $250,000 was raised. The Exxon Education Foundation contributed $100,000. The rest came from other foundations and corporations and from CASE members and other colleges and associations. Magazines have given space for public service ads valued at $3 million. PSAs on radio and TV have used air time valued at $7 million.

The campaign slogan is "America's Energy Is Mindpower." Helmken said he wanted a fresh contemporary image to illustrate the slogan. He remembered a sculpture for Bloomingdale's by Nick Aristovulos which looked like a light bulb, except the bulb was the shape of a human head and the filament was the shape of a heart. He contacted John Jay, art director for Bloomingdale's, and found that the sculpture still existed and could be adapted. The filament heart was made to resemble a human brain. A photograph was made by Shig Ikeda. Helmken's concept and Ikeda's photo were translated by Jay into a dramatic poster with the caption: "America's Energy Is Mindpower: Make Higher Education Your Priority." The light bulb figure is known as CASEy Kilowatt and is used in all of the campaign's print materials. The art and text used on the poster were used to develop a series of public service ads in a variety of formats. They have been used in 20 national magazines--such as Newsweek, Time, U.S. News, People, Ladies Home Journal, Reader's Digest, New York, Penthouse, and Money--as well as in newspapers and m a n y magazines published by the associations and colleges. Helmken credits George Simpson, director of corporate affairs at Newsweek, for helping to get the first public service ads. Simpson hosted a luncheon for some of his counterparts in New York and got the ball rolling. "Once Newsweek and Time agreed to use the ads," Helmken said, "'other magazines joined in." He noted that five of the seven Time, Inc. magazines have used the PSAs. Joel Weiner, vice president for marketing at Seagram's, also was helpful in getting the ads placed. He sent personal letters to 30 key people at periodicals CASE wanted to reach. Television PSAs were developed with assistance from Bob Fisler, former vice president for promotion at Time, Inc. (now retired). He enlisted Young and Rubicam agency personnel to brainstorm ad ideas. Time donated its film footage on "American Renewal" which was developed by Y&R. A new script and sound track were produced to create a 30-second PSA which was distributed to more than 400 television stations and was used by all three networks. Eight radio PSAs also were created and sent to 700 stations. The National Collegiate Athletic Association created another 16 PSAs utilizing the Mindpower theme and ran them during televised football and 47

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basketball games in 1981 and 1982. Thirteen additional PSAs were developed and used in the 1982-83 seasons. The CASE Communications Network was created to distribute the PSAs and other media kits. Over 1,000 press kits were distributed by the network. CASE estimates that 21 million people were reached through" the magazine ads. Public Service Management is assisting with analysis of TV coverage. The CASE estimate for households reached with TV messages is now over 50 million. The nation's colleges were provided with Mindpower materials. There was an ad repro package, a logo package, and a messages package--a series of brief phrases that built on the central theme. Also, there were draft op ed pieces and new releases. An observance manual was available to help colIeges tie into the National Support Higher Education Day, July 16, 1981, when the campaign was given its kick-off at a "gala" in Washington, D.C. Two features of the gala were presentation of the first Jefferson Medal by CASE to John Gardner for his contributions to education and the naming of Mary Eleanor Clark, professor of biological sciences at San Diego State University, as the first national "Professor of the Year." The latter award provided additional TV coverage for Mindpower through an appearance by Professor Clark on the NBC "Today" show. An 80-page program booklet was printed for the gala. It included a 24page, four-color photo essay on higher education with text drawn from an address at the University of Sheffield in 1946 by John Masefield, poet laureate of England. The photo essay was made available to institutions as a separate publication and as a slide presentation. Materials produced by CASE were used by 1,200 colleges to develop their own "mindpower" events. CASE added to its annual awards competition a special category to recognize outstanding efforts by colleges in support of the Mindpower Campaign. The awards program was sponsored by Newsweek. A wide variety of colleges won awards, including an award to the "Canada's Energy Is Mindpower" program. The grand award was won by the University of Vermont. The CASE booklet of 101 program ideas for "mindpower" events describes 26 of the college programs in some detail and lists another 25 programs to stimulate the imaginations of campus coordinators. In the fall of 1982, CASE prepared a new Mindpower focus on business and education cooperation. The slogan "'Mindpower: Ignite It with Your Match" was used to stimulate additional interest in the matching gifts programs of companies which match the contributions their employees make to colleges. The 1982 campaign reached 70 million persons, according to CASE estimates. The goal for the 1983 campaign is 100 million. An October 9 program at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., was used to launch the new focus. It was called a "national convocation'" celebrating National Higher Education Week, October 2-9. CASE got all 50 governors to proclaim the week in their states. Local colleges obtained similar proclamations from mayors of the 20 largest cities. "Local and state 48

ill ~her Education proclamations produce more media attention than a national one," Helmken said. The October 9 convocation included education, government, and business representatives from every state in academic regalia and presentation of the Jefferson Medal to the Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University--with the Jefferson Memorial as the setting. A new Professor of the Year was announced: Anthony F. Aveni, professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University. A second National Higher Education week is planned for the fall of 1983. So far, the Mindpower Campaign has won awards from the American Society of Association Executives; Education Press Association; University and College Designers Association; Printing Industries of America; the Art Directors Club of Washington, D.C.; Print magazine; and the Direct Marketing Association. These are nice, Helmken says, but he has been convinced by his advertising and public relations advisors that the Mindpower Campaign must sustain itself for at least three years with essentially the same logo and message if it is going to have a major impact nationally.

Conclusion These two case studies present evidence that the higher education associations in Washington, which have been essentially professional organiz a t i o n s - t o do conferences, publications, and other programs for their members--are becoming more adept at another important job: national public relations programming. As public support for higher education comes under increased scrutiny because of economic pressures, effective public relations representation at the national level will increase in importance. The associations, clustered at One Dupont Circle, are in an ideal position to provide such services. These two initial efforts to work together to make a significant impact on public opinion provide a striking demonstration of what they can do. Both efforts are high-quality, professional operations. The test now is whether they and similar efforts can be sustained.