PAUR courts national media attention with focus on outreach

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Students may be most familiar with the recent redesign of the University’s Web site, but this is just one manifestation of the Office of Public Affairs and University Relations’ focus on Brown’s external image. Most notably, the department has ramped up its efforts to improve the University’s national media profile.

Since the hiring of Michael Chapman in 2004 as vice president for public affairs and University relations, the office has constructed a TV studio in the basement of Nicholson Hall, hired new media relations staff with broadcast and radio experience and focused on dealing with the external media.

With a staff of 34, PAUR reports to the Office of the President. Its various responsibilities include planning University events, interacting with the media and putting out publications such as the Brown Alumni Magazine and Inside Brown.

Chapman said since his arrival, “A big priority was to strengthen our media relations operation, and to make it a much more proactive and externally focused operation.”

“With the addition of the TV studio, our exposure has gone up on broadcast and cable news programs,” Chapman said, though no specific figures were available.

He said appearances by Brown faculty members on National Public Radio have increased and that coverage of Brown in online media outlets has gone up as well. He added that in the last two years there has been a 34 percent increase in Brown’s appearances in the top 10 print media outlets, which include the New York Times, Newsweek and other national publications.

Wendy Schiller and Darrell West, associate professor and professor, respectively, in the political science department, have appeared regularly on networks such as Fox News and MSNBC as political commentators and made frequent appearances during the recent election cycle. Director of Media Relations Molly de Ramel estimated that Brown professors have been appearing on NPR “at least once a week.”

De Ramel, who was hired in 2005 from Fox News, has worked extensively in television. She and other recent media relations hires who have worked in radio and broadcast journalism have diversified a department whose staffers in the past had primarily print journalism experience.

To improve its ability to publicize faculty research, the media relations department within PAUR hired a new staffer earlier this year to focus on the physical sciences, an area Chapman described as having been “a hole that needed to be filled” in the department. The office now has two science writers on staff, whereas previously it had only one.

According to Chapman, PAUR’s ability to increase its focus on external relations has stemmed not from a larger budget or staff, but rather from the reallocation of resources.

One important change, implemented on Chapman’s arrival, was to replace the biweekly George Street Journal with Inside Brown, a similar newsletter emphasizing faculty research that PAUR distributes “two or three times a semester,” according to Chapman. Media relations personnel write for the newsletter as well as deal with the news media, and Inside Brown’s less frequent production schedule has freed resources within the department to focus on publicizing the accomplishments of Brown faculty and students externally.

“It has always been expected that our office would gain national and international attention for the University,” said Senior Associate Director for Media Relations Tracie Sweeney, who has served in the department for 16 years. “What’s changed is the percentage of time that we devote to media relations has gone up.”

Sweeney said the advent of 24-hour news channels and the Internet have played a role in shifting the department’s focus. “Sixteen years ago you didn’t have those increased pressures to take advantage of that opportunity to get Brown’s message out there,” she said.

She noted that the media relations department used to be known within PAUR as the News Service, and the name change is a sign of its shifting priorities. She also sees new technologies making it easier to reach out to reporters in a faster and more targeted way. Whereas in the past the department relied on “rolodexes” of reporters’ contact information in books that were manually updated each year, PAUR now subscribes to an online service with an “enormous e-database that is updated daily by someone else,” Sweeney said.

Another new technological improvement is the TV studio, which PAUR intends to be an important tool in its efforts to expand Brown’s national media representation.

“One of the major challenges that Brown faced in the past was being able to get our faculty members on television,” Chapman said, a result of Brown’s location outside of a major media market like Boston or New York City. In the past, networks would have to send a camera crew to Providence or a professor would have to drive to Boston to be filmed. Now, any major network can film directly from Brown’s campus through the studio.

“You can reach a lot of people in a short period of time with a TV studio,” de Ramel said. “It’s one more tool to help us get Brown’s story out there.”

De Ramel said her department is “trying to encompass all forms of media that people use.” Staff members are “actively pitching a lot more to radio” and doing “a lot more with the Internet,” she said.

Among its future projects, PAUR intends to continue its current efforts while increasing its focus on enhancing Brown’s international image as well, Chapman said. There has already been some progress in that regard: President Ruth Simmons was profiled Oct. 3 in the Guardian, a London-based newspaper.

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