Sports teams get tons of coverage through “media days,” when athletes are trotted out to offer their wisdom about the upcoming season or championship game.
Why shouldn’t a college try an “academic media day”—featuring its leading professors—to see if that lands any placements in targeted publications?
Such was the reasoning of John A. Bolt, senior executive director in the office of communications at West Virginia University.
The lightbulb went on several years ago, when the university’s foundation sent several top boffins to Naples, Florida—home to a gaggle of well-heeled alumni. The goal was to let the generous folks with the fat wallets hear what the researchers were up to, thereby encouraging donations.
“It occurred to me that we could put those two ideas together,” Bolt says.
WVU kicked off its “academic media day” in 2015, and the university has held it once or twice a year ever since. The events have been a slam dunk, scoring multiple newspaper articles and TV and radio spots.
“It gets all of the primary media in the state,” Bolt says.
From smorgasbord to single-topic fare
The press day initially started with a smorgasbord of professors offering primers on their research. In more recent years, WVU has set a theme to each event.
This year the topic was climate change. Researchers made presentations on West Virginia forest health, water security and climate history stored in tree rings. The topic can be controversial given the coal-dependent West Virginia economy, and Bolt asked the professors to tread carefully.
“When I asked professors to do that one, I said ‘I want you to focus on the impact of climate change, not the cause of climate change.’ They didn’t pay attention to me.” He laughs. “Which is fine. They went there, which of course any good scientist would.”
The presentation on climate change sparked 11 newspaper stories or broadcast pieces. Headlines included the following: “WVU Researchers Working to Help West Virginia Weather Climate Change.”
Nic Zegre, director of the WVU Mountain Hydrology Laboratory, suggested that it would be a good business decision to divert the state’s huge water supply from fossil fuel extraction to food production.
“West Virginia is all about business,” The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register quoted Zegre as saying. “It’s all about economic productivity. Think water quality versus water supply. Is the water pollution associated with inexpensive energy production the best use of our water?”
Quantifying opioid abuse
One academic media day in 2017 was devoted to opioid abuse. The university offered experts who create counseling programs, treat babies in the hospital and conduct research into pain reduction.
Cassie Leonard, a medical doctor and professor, discussed prenatal effects of opioid abuse. One study of umbilical cord tissue found that 20% of babies born in West Virginia are exposed to drugs or alcohol, she reported.
“Women who are suffering from substance abuse become pregnant and need treatment for the complex issues surrounding substance abuse disorders,” her presentation said. “It is not a moral failure.”
John Deskins, an economist, covered the economic effects of the crisis in a state that led the nation in opioid deaths, with 36 per 100,000 in 2015, compared with a U.S. average of 10.4 per 100,000. He detailed opioids’ staggering financial hit.
Such presentations caught reporters’ attention, drawing headlines such as one stating, “Official says opioid epidemic shorts state’s economy nearly $1 billion.”
One can see how this wealth of information on a timely topic would lead to next-day stories. WVU welcomes the spot news coverage, Bolt says, but the benefits reach beyond day-after headlines. The event introduces reporters to professors and their research, offering the chance for longer-term coverage.
The goal is “to get these people face to face with each other,” Bolt says, “so that the reporters know a year from now or six months from now, that when they have a subject matter that they’re looking at, that they can come to us, and we’ve probably got somebody to talk to them.”
Speakers are given between 30 minutes and 45 minutes to make their presentation, and a break followed each one. This gives reporters a chance to corner the profs and pose further questions or do on-camera interviews.
Brainstorming the topic
The topics begin with brainstorming. “We’d just sit down and figure out, ‘What are some of the cool things we’ve got going on?’ and we brought them all together,” Bolt says.
Part of the driving force for the event is that WVU does not get the academic respect that it deserves, says Bolt.
“It’s not so much that it’s looked down on as it’s not even on their radar for them to think about WVU as a place that might be a resource for anything,” Bolt says. “We have a responsibility to get the university’s name out there, but I think the way for us to effectively do that is to be a trusted resource for media.”
When faculty participate, they start getting direct calls from reporters seeking sources. Slowly but surely, profs are finding themselves on reporters’ rolodexes.
Besides, it’s a chance to learn about their own university.
Bolt explains, “I had one faculty member say to me, ‘This is the only place I can go and find out what my colleagues are doing.’”