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Black-college PR directors share challenges, sense of mission
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Cynthia B. Hopson

Oct 6, 2005

By Vicki Brown*

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) — Telling the stories of historically black, United Methodist-related colleges has always been a challenge, but communication directors who came together to strengthen connections with one another and church agencies said their sense of mission keeps them going.

Larry Acker, public relations director for Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, said he left his job at another historically black college a few years ago to become tourism director for a small, historic town in Texas.

“I knew in six months I’d made a mistake,” Acker said, at a Sept. 28 meeting of public relations staff organized by the Black College Fund and United Methodist Communications. “It was the difference between filling rooms at bed and breakfasts and helping kids graduate from college.”

Fortunately, Acker said, he was offered a job at Wiley College.

Cynthia Bond Hopson, the new assistant general secretary of the Black College Fund and Ethnic Concerns at the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, said the meeting was aimed at helping black colleges get their message out.

“I think they are faced with challenges of limited resources, competition for their students and small staffs. It’s critical that we help them tell their stories,” she said.

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A UMNS photo by Vicki Brown

Shirley Range of Bethune-Cookman College and Edwin Smith of Rust College discuss publicizing their institutions.

Public relations staff from nine of the 11 historically black colleges received tips from Michael Smart, national news director at Brigham Young University, about getting coverage of their colleges in national newspapers such as The New York Timesand USA Today. Staff members from both UMCom and the Board of Higher Education and Ministry also talked about how the agencies can help the black colleges tell their stories.

Smart told the public relations directors that it was the story and their pitch that were important, not the size of their college. “If the story is interesting, reporters don’t care where it came from,” Smart said.

He advised knowing the market they’re pitching to, studying the newspaper or magazine to learn who writes about that subject, and timing some pitches based on news events. For instance, a professor’s research about an alternative fuel source is more likely to catch a reporter’s interest if gas is $3 a gallon.

Smart said that even colleges with big endowments and huge advertising budgets need press coverage because a story told by a third party has credibility that advertising lacks.

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A UMNS photo by Vicki Brown

UMCom's Stephen Drachler speaks to public relations directors of historically black colleges on managing crises at their schools.

Staff from the colleges shared success stories and brainstormed about placing stories.

For instance, Kennie Hicks of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., said Walter M. Kimbrough, president of the college, is the school’s first president from the hip-hop generation.

“He really connects with the students,” Hicks said, adding that Kimbrough sometimes quotes hip-hop performers. At age 38, he is the youngest of the presidents of the historically black United Methodist-related colleges.

Hicks compiled a list of publications and approaches she might use in getting national news organizations to write a profile of the president of her college.

Other stories discussed by the group included mad cow disease research done by Omar Bagasra, a professor of biology at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C.

Acker said actor Denzel Washington is directing a movie about the Wiley College debate team of the 1930s. However, Acker said, when the Academy Award-winning actor is on campus, the film cannot be publicized because Washington wants to work.

Smart and others told him not to worry, that when the movie comes out, he will be awash in publicity. Jill Scoggins, public relations director at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., suggested that Acker get to know the studio’s public relations staff, so that he will be able to take advantage of the work they are doing — as well as their large budgets. She said she has had success working with drug companies to publicize research and trials involving Meharry doctors.

The movie, “The Great Debaters,” is produced by Miramax and centers on Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley from 1927 to 1947, and his debate team. The team defeated the debate team from Harvard.

*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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