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July 23, 2009

Making Pitt Work: Pitt Communicators trade ideas, tips

In an effort to improve their job performance, more than two dozen staff members from across the Pittsburgh campus have established an informal group they call the Pitt Communicators.

One of the founding members, Sonia Gill, director of marketing and communications in the Swanson School of Engineering, explained, “The way it started is a couple of communication professionals like me who had recently started their roles here at Pitt would meet at Panera to talk about our jobs and learn from each other, because we are kind of silos.

“At the beginning about five of us were introduced to each other through UMC (University Marketing Communications), because most if not all of us deal with them. The group grew as we identified people like us who worked at different schools.”

The makeup of the informal group has changed as job responsibilities have changed. Since 2005, when the group first met, about 50 Pitt staff members have had some contact with the group, either at meetings or via email to share tips and advice on external and internal public relations.

According to Gina McDonell Grone, strategic communications manager in the School of Arts and Sciences, about 25 staffers regularly attend the group’s meetings, which usually are held every other month. Grone currently is serving as informal group leader, setting the meeting times and locations as well as scheduling speakers.

The group welcomes new members, who can join by contacting Grone at 412/383-5346.

Following a recent meeting of the group, at which media professionals from the Office of Public Affairs discussed how best to get school-specific news out to the largest number of appropriate news outlets, some of the Pitt Communicators stayed to talk with University Times staff writer Peter Hart.

In addition to Gill and McDonell, the communications professionals included Teralyn Iscrupe, Swanson School of Engineering; Dan Bates, Office of Technology Management, and Joan Britten, School of Nursing.

UNIVERSITY TIMES: What are some examples of the kind of people you’ve invited to address your meetings?

Sonia Gill: The whole purpose of this group is for learning, which is why we invited the Public Affairs professionals. We had a similar talk about media relations once before, but in that in case the whole Office of News came, which was wonderful. They gave not such a different talk but focused more on good ways to work with each other, which was very beneficial to us. We also had the [University’s] web team give a talk. Many of the communicators are responsible for determining their area’s web content.

Teralyn Iscrupe: In that case, it was more tips, not so much on how to post things, but for people who use different programs, [Adobe] Dreamweaver and what not. UMC gives us templates to work from depending on the program. They will do the actual launch of the web sites for us.

Sonia Gill: They talked to us about trends a little bit, too. About the importance of images, for example. Another timely talk we had was how to deal with our budget, because UMC is a fee-for-service organization. They gave us tips on how to keep costs down.

Gina McDonell Grone: We had a presentation on how to do marketing research, on how we could conduct small-scale research, to do focus groups and surveys and things like that.

I also tried to bring in some services from parts of the University that people might not know about, for example, [the Office of] Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching. I brought them in and they told us how they could help with surveys, and no one was aware of that service.

Dan Bates: We had a presentation on social networking that was helpful.

Sonia Gill: Yes: Facebook, Twitter, that kind of stuff.

Teralyn Iscrupe: Among other things, we discovered some schools are more active at using those. I think it depends extensively on whether they feel their alumni and their students and their faculty are using those media. There also are some schools, I think two, that have actual Intranet, and they’re using that more to communicate with their staff and faculty.

Have you invited presenters from outside the University?

Teralyn Iscrupe: Yes, we’ve also had someone externally, Jeff Tobe, who came in and talked about creativity in media.

Dan Bates: His thing is “Coloring Outside the Lines.” He told us about innovative thinking, thinking about change and how to anticipate it and deal with it.

Gina McDonell Grone: One of the social networking presentations was also from outside the University. We had one on measurements and assessments that focused on web site analysis and measuring responses.

Something that comes up at almost every meeting is that social media opportunity. That’s a really good example of how we can learn from each other, because it’s something we’re all sort of thinking maybe we should be doing, but we don’t know how and we want to learn how others are doing it. We realize that, at least yet, there are no Pitt-wide standards or procedures. Are we allowed to use Facebook pages? It’s a good interactive topic for us.

Teralyn Iscrupe: One of the most helpful things is the collaboration with things we pass out at the meeting. We share publications and poll each other on their effectiveness.

We had one member who had two versions of a publication. There were two primary colors in each of the publications and she sent the samples around the room and asked, “Does this jump out at you more, or do you like this one?” So we were like her little focus group.

Sometimes there are little things that come up along the way. For example, you’re not sure if you should be printing something, that it will be worth the cost. We can get input on that from each other. Or if we’re trying to get faculty buy-in, or trying to find out the best strategies to reach our audience. Talking together is really helpful.

Sonia Gill: One of the things I found useful when I first started at Pitt was knowing how to best handle the processes in our school, because we do have to self-manage our workload. When I came on board I had to generate a magazine and I didn’t really have anyone guiding me. It was helpful to learn how my peers gathered information, how they determined what’s important and what’s not, how they involved their dean for final approval.

Dan, as a communications professional at the Office of Technology Management, are you an oddball in this group because you deal with faculty University-wide?

Dan Bates: Well, I’m a little different in that I’m not in a school.

I was in the Provost’s office for about five years of my seven-plus years at Pitt, and communication relative to technology commercialization within the University — that whole realm — was not really done before. I’m in an office that only in the last couple years has pursued this, which means there was a lack of strategy.

For me this group’s been helpful, because my office’s audience are the faculty we work with across all the various programs and schools. It helps on both ends for us to know what each other is doing.

Coming here allows me to realize I’m not in this vacuum, necessarily. We’re all fairly independent, we do things our own ways. Or we figure out how to work, shall we say, “within the system.” Knowing what that means is helpful.

On the other hand, collectively, while we’re dealing with a number of kinds of audiences — faculty and staff, administrators, donors, alumni — some sort of outreach is common to us all.

How do you handle the wide range of demographics in your respective audiences?

Joan Britten: There was one humorous incident: One of the younger members, having done marketing research and checking analytics of our alumni, with a surprised look said, “There were people who were over 60!” We still laugh about that.

Sonia Gill: We’ve shared information that helps guide our decisions. We learned, for example, that baby boomers are not always using the web to get to their information. They want the print media.

Joan Britten: But, for people who have been in the public relations industry for decades, we can look to our younger members and say, “What is this Facebook thing?”

You need to know because your students may already be out there and have [Facebook] pages. Students become alumni. So we reasoned in my office that one person would go on MySpace, and one go on Facebook, because we at least need to know if School of Nursing students are already setting these things up. It’s really research for our jobs.

Teralyn Iscrupe: But it helps in talking to one another and bringing that back to our own schools, to our own supervisors, too, because there’s a power to being able to say: “This is what that school is doing.” So someone who says, “This is the color, or whatever, I want,” we can always say, “No” and then jokingly say it’s the Pitt Communicators’ fault.

Joan Britten: Yes, to be able to say, “Someone at the meeting said …” is empowering.

I frequently use our UPMC news bureau person in a similar way. Let’s face it, every $75 grant is not newsworthy, so I pass these notices along to the news bureau, because then I can say to a faculty member at least I did something with the grant announcement. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry, not newsworthy.” Eventually, you accumulate enough of those and that becomes a release.

Dan Bates: This group has allowed us to bring attention to our needs to University Marketing Communications for publications or for news to Public Affairs in general and it allows us to be able to voice our desires and frustrations and so on with UMC, which is a group that we all really should be working with well.

We can do that maybe more so today than when we began, when all of us were out doing our own thing, and some of us, including me, were getting help from outside the University.

Gina McDonell Grone: It’s a tenuous balance between having the UMC service, because we all have to interact with them at some level, and having a separate venue where we can talk about our problems. So it’s a tough balance, but I think we tried hard and pretty successfully to place UMC as our advocate and a resource.

Has the growing popularity of reading news online influenced your jobs in any way?

Joan Britten: In looking at the loss of print papers, you should look at readership by age or by economic status. My mother can put out 75 cents a day for the paper, but she doesn’t have a computer, and she’s not going to be spending a couple thousand dollars to get one at the age of 89, or running to the library every day to access a computer.

You’ve got two classes of people — either too old to learn the computer or too poor to afford one — that are no longer going to have access to the news if we lose print newspapers.

Dan Bates: I’m a firm believer in the print media. But, on the other hand, we wrestle with doing a lot more with the Internet, and that’s a tough one. In my case, we’d need to bring in … a really young person to get me up to speed. (laughs)

So in your responsibilities to communicate your message, do you feel pressure to be more web-oriented?

Teralyn Iscrupe: Maybe on a personal level I do. I’m not so sure that it comes directly from the dean or anybody.

One of the key things we’re wrestling with is trying to get the buy-in of the younger alumni. The first thought in my head was that we really need to have a strong web relationship to get the alumni to come to us, and to reach them.

In general, though, I think there needs to be a good combination of print and online media. I know from a personal standpoint, if I want to find a particular story, a search option is my best friend. I can control the find [mechanism], I find the information I’m looking for and I’m good to go. But if I’m taking the bus Downtown, then I want to have something physical in my hands. I think a lot of people feel that way. You want that option. You need the choice.

Dan Bates: I still print everything out. I can’t help myself.

Joan Britten: A friend of mine joked that we’ll become a paperless society because soon there will be no paper left.

Sonia Gill: One of the reasons why an Internet presence really has traction in our school is because you can measure it. You can click on a story and find out how many readers it had. So, hopefully, someone has time to do that, maybe a web person who can determine how many people actually opened that email.

Dan Bates: Do you have a web person at your school?

Sonia Gill: As of June 1.

Dan Bates: I’m frustrated that I don’t have one, and probably won’t have one for a while. I feel like I’m starting out with an electric typewriter.

As a content person — which is what we are in many respects — trying to figure out the best ways to package that content, re-package that content, store that content, disseminate it — quite frankly none of our staffs is getting any bigger. So we have to do both. At the beginning I was dubious, so I took a course in it. But I still mail out invitations, with a “fax back form” and all that stuff. Then this year I ran out of time and I had a co-worker help me get the invitation [materials] online, where I email a letter and have people reply online.

Did that work for you?

Dan Bates: I got about the same number of responses. And I was able to follow up with another email letter — no envelope-stuffing involved. So, I guess I’m gradually getting less skeptical.

Gina McDonell Grone: In Arts and Sciences we’re moving toward using more visual media and online tools, which is due to budget cuts, actually. It’s me working with departments that have tiny budgets anyway and now have no budgets [for public relations materials].

I can finally say, “Let’s do an email newsletter,” and they can’t say anything except yes, because they don’t have money to do a printed newsletter and they want something. I took a course at CGS, and I actually enjoy that part of my job. I like the technology part.”

Any final thoughts about how the Pitt Communicators meetings have helped in your job?

Gina McDonell Grone: A lot of these conversations also happen by email or phone outside the meeting, just knowing what each of us is good at. For instance, I emailed Sonia a couple of weeks ago to ask about accessing African-American publications, because she had mentioned that area recently. So I can give her a quick call or email.

Teralyn Iscrupe: We also got to know how some of our group have a specialty in their background. For example, Kate Ledger [of the Katz Graduate School of Business] has worked on web-engine-search marketing. That was a focus of her [former] job for about 18 months. So I could ask her to meet me and show me what to do and ask what did she learn that I can apply here at Pitt. In that sense, we’re also a network in addition to the group meetings.

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