Category Archives: higher education

Billboards: The Good, The Bad & the Sales Reps

I’ve used billboards for our institution for about 25 years.  They’re effective if the message is simple in a dynamic design.  But there are many other things to consider, which I know from good and bad experience.

Do not buy a board unless you know these things:

Its location.  If it’s on the left side of the road you’re traveling, it’s probably a waste.  It’s too far away from the traveler, and most of us don’t look to the left when driving unless we’re quick-checking scenery.

If it’s on the right and too far away, it will be glanced at and not processed.

Even with a board in a good location on a highway, you’re traveling 55-65  miles an hour.  You have 4-6 seconds to see and process it.  The image has to be grabbing and the message has to be brief and dynamic.

If you have too many words it won’t be read at all (a standard rule for anything but really important for billboards).

Do not give complete faith to billboard sales reps.  They’re under pressure to fill the blank space. A sales rep I’ve dealt with for years  pushed a board on an interstate. Great deal.   I asked him to send me a photo of it.  He did.  It appeared to be close to the right side of the highway with a long visual reach.

I bought it.  My graphic artist created a dynamic design.

A colleague drove by and took a picture of it.  Turns out it was actually down over a bank and was visible for a second or two.  The company photographer had walked down the bank and taken a picture of it, making it look like it was next to the highway.

It also turned out that  our president also saw it and was outraged at the rip-off.  My credibility with him was damaged.

My rep claimed he knew nothing about how it was presented to us.

A second board was presented in the same way.  It was smaller but closer to the road.  The problem: the board was behind a small hill and what appeared to have a seven second view was actually about two seconds.

For the most part, sales reps are not trustworthy.  Boards in prime locations go for top dollar.  If a rep tells you he can give you a good deal on a board, it’s because it’s in a bad location and not selling well.

The reps are under pressure to keep the board filled just as radio and TV needs to fill “inventory” and web sites need to sell “real estate” or whatever the latest term is.

With billboards, you need to scout the location yourself if possible.  If you’re doing something out of your area, you need a guarantee that the board is in a good location, and I don’t know how you do this.  We bought a board out of the area where the rep figured we would never see it.  It just happened that an employee was a native of that area and drove by it.  The board  was in a field so far away that the message was barely visible.

For billboards, the message and design is your responsibility.  The rest is up to the reps and with them I give a nod to the X Files:

Trust No One.



Farewell to a Friend & Colleague


A friend and colleague died recently.  Joe Donovan was one of the influencers in higher ed PR in our Boomer generation.

Joe, who was the PR guru at Thomas Jefferson University, then LaSalle, was one of those very rare guys who always had a joke and told it well.

He was part of a small band headed by Penn State PR giant Art Ciervo that created the College and University Public Relations & Associated Professionals (CUPRAP).

I served on the CUPRAP board twice, the first time with Joe.  In the board room he was quiet, thoughtful and serious when the time called for it, then lightened things up when got too serious.   He helped set the direction of the organization which has since grown to encompass higher ed PR, publications and web professionals from several states.

It is the largest and probably the most respected organization of its kind in the U.S.

I write this because we tend to forget the Joe Donovans of the world.  They’re the quiet ones who are all about sharing, even with the newest of newcomers.  At conferences, Joe was the guy walking around to the young professionals, introducing himself and listening with intense interest to their stories and making them instantly feel part of the organization.

In the 25 years I knew him, I never heard Joe say a bad word about anyone.  And I never heard anyone speak ill of him.

My friend and colleague Dick Jones of Dick Jones Communications, was also on the ground floor of CUPRAP and worked closely with Joe for two decades.

“Joe D. was a raconteur,” he says.  “He knew how to tell a story like a professional story teller which he was, of course.   We all are story tellers, in this business of higher education public relations.

“Some are more effective than others, though, and Joe was one of the best.  Like most funny people, he was a serious, substantive man.  And if you needed advice, or sympathy, he was there for you, after a few laugh-producing stories, of course.

“He was highly respected in his home region of Philadelphia and around the state.  Although a funny man, he was not a clown, never that, in any respect.  He was a professional who knew his craft and everyone who worked with him recognized that.  Joe was perhaps the perfect example of the man who takes his work seriously but never, never, himself.”

People like Joe quietly share and help turn a vision into reality.  His intensity and commitment were softened by that mischievous and wise sense of humor that made you want to be near him, share his vision and work with him.

People like Joe are always too suddenly gone and with him that sense of life, laughter and celebrating one’s accomplishments with others.

I count my blessings that I worked with Joe, learned from him and shared jokes and stories.  I  I will remember him and look for a new Joe in the younger generations working their way up.  I know they are out there — folks with that humor, heart and intellect — but they are indeed rare.

Dick summed up Joe’s life.  “He was absolutely wonderful.  I can’t think of him without smiling.”

My sentiments exactly.

Thank you, Joe.  Where ever you are, I know there is warmth and laughter.



Huge Shift in PR Speed, Responsibility & Accountability

In the previous post, I outlined our strategy for the president’s announcement about possible changes on campus.

Shortly after our announcement, a faculty member friend expressed concern about announcing the news on social media, feeling that the news was detrimental to the university.  She appreciated the administration’s transparency but felt we should be more cautious in what we “share with the outside world.”

Her concern is  legitimate.  In the mad rush of last minute rewrites to hit a 10 a.m. deadline we inadvertently posted the president’s letter to the campus community on our News site  instead of  the news release.  But the release exactly reflected the letter.  The information was the same.  But there was, to some,  the perception of sharing inside information.

I told my colleague  that in today’s  social media driven world, as soon as someone says something, whether it’s true or false,  it becomes public. People share and comment on it, spreading it whether it’s true or false.

As a PR department, we do have a need to be truthful, accountable and swift.

So it’s crucial to get the the institutional announcement out as quickly as possible.  In doing this, we own the news on this matter; we are the originators.

This was reinforced  when a reporter with a local daily tweeted our news with a link to our announcement.   The reporter had to do no work at all.  This is an ongoing, major  shift in journalism.

Gone is the the buffer of “according to PR spokesperson. . . .”  The reporter simply links our story — the source.

We are no longer PR Departments .  We are multimedia production agencies, creating news stories and distributing them to the understaffed journalism profession quickly and truthfully.

This is a huge responsibility.

More on this in the next post.

If you missed my previous post, check it out to see how we successfully minimized the sting of our announcement about possible campus changes.

Using Social Media to Ease Bad News

Last week our university released some not-so-positive news.

We didn’t have to.  We took a pro-active stance and put it out there.  Thankfully, we have a president who believes in being out front with everything possible.

My news director, campus technologies/social media person and I work very closely together, as these offices should on every campus.  Before we posted the news, I called the social media person.  “Do we have an upbeat story we can post right after our initial news?”


He pulled a five-minute video of our new suite-style residence halls that we had produced for a TV show. He posted the first story on Facebook, which, like it or not, is one of our primary news channels.  A few minutes later he posted the res hall story which sat above the “bad news” story.

The initial news story was seen by 3,838 people, had five likes, one share and no comments.

The res hall story was seen by 8,620 people, earned 142 likes, 30 shares and 22 comments, all wildly positive.  They ranged from a proud mother who was sending her son here and couldn’t wait for him to live in the new dorm, to many nostalgic posts from alumni remembering their days in the old dorms.


1.  When you have news that’s not sugar sweet, be quick, proactive and assure the public know you’re an honest news organization.

2.  Have something else ready to soften the blow and post it in concert with the other news.

PS:  I did get a question from a faculty member on why we posted the initial story, essentially sharing it with everyone on Facebook and Twitter.  I’ll share her concern and my answer in the next post.

The Successful Message: Sincere & Relevant

Our president, Fran Hendricks, is a retired Air Force brigadier general and a 1979 graduate of our university .
A sincere Veterans Day message from him seemed like it would be appreciated by veterans and non-veterans alike. We wrote a script and he edited it. We shot it with a single camera in his office with the U.S. and Pennsylvania flags behind him. These were not props. They’re part of his office.
He speaks straight into the camera. We cut to B-roll of photos of MU graduates and area veterans from all branches.
It ends with him saying: “Veterans, thank you,” and a salute. We fade to an image of  raising the flag on Iwo Jima.
The music carrying it is “America the Beautiful.”
I had put a lot of thought behind this before we even started. We did not want him in uniform. He is a university president. But after serving the country for 33-years, Fran Hendricks is very much a soldier, and always will be. It’s a source of pride to him, faculty, students, staff, alumni and area residents.
Hendricks is a humble man and I knew that a “message from the president” would not pass muster. He’s a service-oriented person and the university is the greater body that he now serves. The message would be from Mansfield University.
Most importantly, there was no sales pitch. I repeat for all of you PR folks who need reinforcement for your superiors: no sales pitch. No website at the end telling veterans or potential students to check us out. It is a message, pure and simple, of appreciation to veterans and current service people.
The results were heartwarming, inspiring and revealing. We posted it on YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook. Our ultra-savvy web person, John Maslar, targeted veterans and bases in a five-state circumference, as well as alumni and students
His stats show show that in a five day period, the video:
-was seen by 125,000 Facebook/Twitter users;
-was shared on Facebook 75 times;
-earned more than 700 likes;
-was retweeted 8 times
-Between likes/views/shares/retweets/clicks, we had about 2,500 interactions.
As John points out: “that’s 18 cents per person who took the time to read and interact with the message.”
The video worked for several reasons:
-It is succinct (1:12);
-Hendricks is straightforward and sincere;
-the message is simple and direct;
-There is no “extra message.”
It gained us appreciation from students, alumni, staff, faculty, constituents and introduced us to new audiences.
Yes, you can count on one hand the number of colleges who have a retired general as a president, but every college has a special person who can convey a relevant message on an appropriate occasion.
Just be clear, concise and don’t pollute it. A clean message has its own halo effect that lasts for years.

In other words, make the salute sincere.

“Pillow: American Made” is Poetry of Moments, Love & Anger

Note: I’m going off topic to give some space to an artist I’ve been following for many years.  This is his best work yet.  I know there are a lot of music lovers among my readers, so check out the review and the album, and share with friends. 

Nick Ippoliti is an independent-minded, songwriter/singer who delivers, in “Pillow: American Made,” a  mix of personal reflections, good stories and social outrage. It is unfairly confining to pin him into a category but I will place him in Americana’s vast world of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
He speaks for the everyday person and looks at the government, big business and manufactured pop culture with a fearless ability to rip away the veneer with driving music and well-crafted words.
“American Blow Back Baby” confronts the paranoia in a post 9/11 world where:
I heard our leaders yell/’We can’t see our enemy/We don’t know who to fear/So keep one eye on your back /And one eye on the trigger.’ In other words, don’t trust anyone, not even your friends. Thank you, Wall Street, Washington and corporate media.
In “No Matter The Consequence,” he contrasts new age consciousness of universal love with the grittiness of revolution, reminding us that the “our truth doesn’t flourish from left or right.” He goes on to say: “Set aflame our voice of anger/Incite our right to choose/Occupy this land we harvest/If we don’t, we’re bound to lose.”
He turns more reflective in songs like “Another Country Roadside” with Kali Rea, a slow, happy waltz in which the couple escape the bickering, angry world to recharge their unchanging love in the peace of nature. The lyrics are poetry: “Suntip those dirty toes/Up on the fire/Scream like a hawk/As the wind snakes your hair.
The bouncy “Moon Scar Angel” is a tale of the writer’s life who does a dash of love and returns to the pursuit of the art, which is life fully lived, disappointments and all:
“Sunset, lift off/ Went for wine; she never came back/ The one that got away, Moon Scar Angel/If I had to do it again/ From the dirt rise up and grow/I wouldn’t change a thing/ Not an ounce of broken heart.”
The meditative “Evening Song” describes the life of an artist who records everything, knowing that it’s reflective spec of a divine matrix. Like William Blake, he knows that in the trivial is the profound:
“Some songs tell tales/ Of what I’ve lost/ Some songs sing/ Of what I’ve got/ But all melodies/ Like a breath drawn in/ Then released into the dusk/ Reminds me I’m alive.”
The arrangements are powerful but not overwhelming. Produced at The Spot Studios in Lakewood, CO, the emphasis is on the lyrics, pushed by a no-nonsense voice that is intent on ensuring you feel his sense fun, darkness, irony, happiness and anger.
In many respects, Ippolitti reminds me of Henry Miller, an under-appreciated visionary, anarchist writer who condemned governments, capitalism and the superficiality of 20th century life. At the same time he documented his loves and losses, friends and foes, joys and sufferings and went on his merry way, pursuing the next glorious, eternal moment.
Ippoliti — Mule Dixon – does the same thing in “Pillow: American Made.”
He writes and delivers with heart, brains and balls.

Listen to the songs here.

You can also find Mule Dixon on Facebook and the CD Baby Store

“Disrupted” Author Gives Advice on iGen Marketing

My last post was a review of Disrupted, which I  like a lot. So does my president. He told his cabinet members to read it. At a recent conference of college presidents, he recommended it to his colleagues.

I’ve recommended to everyone in the business.
I sought out author Stefan Pollack to do a Huffington Post piece about it. You can check out the full article there or just cut to our question/answer session below. Stefan kindly indulged me last week while he was on vacation.

Five questions about his findings and the future of marketing/advertising.
1. Why have you labeled people born after 1994 the “iGen generation?
Until now, most circles have labeled this generation Z, but based upon my observations there is enough of a generation gap between Y and this generation, that they needed a proper title. iGen describes quite a bit in just a few letters: they are inherently mobile, they value individuality, they are unique compared to the working generations of Y, Z and Boomers. The name also implicitly nods to Apple’s iPhone and iPad, which, among other forces, helped instigate the great communications disruption of the last decade, empowering this generation to lead brands into a consumer-controlled environment.
2. How large is the disruption created by this new consumer generation?
To be clear, while iGen has certainly created a disruption in the marketing world, the reality is they are natives of a post-disrupted environment. They don’t know a world apart from this intuitively mobile and consumer-driven one in which we currently live. iGen grew up knowing they have the entirety of human knowledge on small devices in their pockets. The consequences are staggering. Never before could a generation completely and totally omit a brand from their consumer decision-making process—they can find out anything and everything without consuming one iota of traditional media or brand-controlled messaging. This is probably the largest disruption our industry has ever witnessed.
3. What do companies and colleges need to do to communicate with these consumers?
The most important thing brands can do is listen. Identify the target audience and listen to them, learn their behaviors, their wants and needs, and deduce how a brand or message can coexist or nurture that lifestyle—then a brand or message will be relevant to iGen. Additionally, companies can identify influencers that iGen already listens to and capture their attention with a message, however they will concede control of the message once the influencer becomes an advocate.
4. What do we need to keep them?
Simple: be transparent, authentic, and honest. iGen and digital natives are the bloodhounds of consumers—they can spot disingenuous marketing long before it reaches them. However, once a brand or idea is embraced by iGen, they become fearless advocates and behave as influencers in their vast networks.
5. What will advertising and marketing look like in five years?
At the velocity of current trends, advertising and marketing will need to adapt to correct for the massive ad-avoidance rates. Now that people are mobile, their attention is moving from TV and print to their devices. Mobile marketing will continue to be a leading force in the industry, but it will need to be targeted—both demographically and geographically. Specific niches, such as video and music streaming, augmented reality, and location-based promotions, have tremendous potential for success. iGen is not adverse to marketing or advertising as long as it is relevant and authentic. The days of sandblasting a controlled message and hoping that enough of it sticks are over. Marketers must be accurate with their analysis of target audiences and use only tools that appeal to them.