|Black-college PR directors share challenges, sense of mission|
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
“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,”
|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
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
|A UMNS photo by Vicki Brown
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.
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 email@example.com.
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