Publicity (Be Prepared)

Posted on July 28, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

The July 27th issue of The New York Times featured an article entitled “Green, Greener, Greenest” that might very well provide the first broad glimpse for many of its readers into the world of campus sustainability. The big news is that the Princeton Review will debut a “green rating” when it unveils its annual guide to colleges this week. In the article, the institutions receiving the highest green grades from the Princeton Review are revealed, though I’ll note with some frustration that we learn precious little in the article about what these wonderful leaders have accomplished, or the criteria by which the schools were assessed. And as long as I’m at it, I’ll point out the unfortunate misstatement that becoming carbon neutral is impossible without the purchase of offsets. That’s simply not true (and is worth covering in a future posting).

Missed opportunities aside, I’m reminded of P.T. Barnum’s observation that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” (though I do tend to favor the twist that Irish poet Brendan Behan added: “…except your own obituary”). The Times article will be circulated amongst campus constituencies of all levels, it will pique the interests of alumni, and it will ultimately raise all boats amongst campus sustainability professionals. New opportunities will be created, and we’ll all be thankful that the article appeared, warts and all.

I’m in my fourth year as a campus sustainability professional, and one of the biggest lessons that I have to share to date with my newer peers is about publicity and in particular the importance of developing a strong relationship with your university’s Public Affairs group to help you generate and manage publicity. They can help you to:

  • Document and share successes. The Public Affairs group is there to help you document, communicate, and celebrate successes. Let them excel at their jobs. Of course we all have a long way to go before our campus operations can be called sustainable, so be careful in the language that you choose to communicate successes, lest you be accused of green-washing. However, don’t underestimate the importance of creating a buzz to propel sustainability initiatives.
  • Inform your community. Campus greening is a hot topic, and people both within and beyond your university want to know what’s going on with your sustainability efforts. The more you share with them, the more opportunities you’ll have to be connected with those who share your mission, or who are otherwise willing to participate.
  • Raise your program’s profile. University administrators love good publicity for their institutions. Who wouldn’t? When a campus sustainability program begins to generate publicity, administrators take notice, they take pride in the accomplishments, and they open doors (wider) for new opportunities.
  • Filter media requests. Publicity breeds publicity. If you receive a lot of media requests, your Public Affairs group can function as a middleman and filter the requests, identify the focus of each request so that you can prepare, and coordinate the scheduling of interviews on your behalf.
  • Inspire others. We expect universities to inspire, to lead, and to set a good example. I’m increasingly being contacted by people in other organizations and institutions in the Houston area that have heard something about Rice’s sustainability program in the local media and want some advice in launching their own efforts. I also find that our own students get excited when they see Rice’s campus greening initiatives in the news, and they contact me to see how they become involved.

Of course, it does take some time for a university sustainability program to begin notching successes, but once it does, publicity can really accelerate progress. I would advise new campus sustainability professionals to work with Public Affairs to develop content for the campus newspaper and the alumni magazine, to try to have articles placed in local newspapers, and when something exciting with a strong visual component happens, to make a pitch to local television news programs. Effective publicity coupled with genuine results will eventually draw the attention of the national news media, such as with the Times article.

So how will the new Princeton Review green rating and the related publicity impact our jobs? A couple of years ago, I was told rather bluntly and forcefully by an admissions official that applicants do not care about environmental issues when they are selecting a college. Who was I to disagree? My experience was not with applicants, but rather with enrolled students. Regardless of whether that official has a new opinion, I will wager that because of the publicity generated by the Princeton Review ratings and articles like the one from The New York Times, my fellow campus sustainability professionals are likely to be warmly embraced by their Admissions Offices and other administrators over the coming months. We’ll also be spending more time with our Public Affairs group, to help generate the publicity we need to draw attention to and fuel our programs, and to improve our ratings. And, perhaps, our collegial little community of campus sustainability professionals will become a dash more competitive, now that the machinery of college ratings has become involved. Be prepared.

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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional

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