Five weeks ago, right next to stories about the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes, a Supreme Court ruling about sentencing guidelines and Vladimir Putin’s anointment of a hand-picked successor, the front page of The New York Times declared, “Harvard to Aid Students High in Middle Class.”
The day before, the university had stunned the higher education world with its announcement of an expansive financial-aid initiative of unprecedented proportions. And while University President Richard Levin quickly disclosed that Yale was in the process of readying its own “major announcement,” it appeared that the University had missed its chance to make a splash with the news of its own aid initiative.
That is, until Monday, when Yale’s guile won it an onslaught of press coverage thanks, at least in part, to its announcement a week earlier that it would spend more from its endowment in order to pay for a forthcoming financial-aid initiative. With that clever pre-announcement announcement, according to media strategists interviewed Tuesday, Yale laid the foundation for its own aid announcement and managed to avoid being overshadowed by Harvard — despite the fact Yale’s actual announcement was virtually identical to what Harvard unveiled more than a month ago.
Last Monday, Yale garnered headlines in The Times, the Wall Street Journal and scores of other publications by disclosing that it would increase spending from its $22.5 billion endowment by nearly 40 percent in order to fund research on the new West Campus, support the possible increase of the student body and — most importantly — fund a forthcoming undergraduate financial-aid increase.
That news of that decision set the stage for this Monday’s aid announcement, and created a buzz about the forthcoming plan, the media strategists told the News.
Many of the publications that covered the first announcement would have been remiss if they did not follow up their stories with articles on the actual aid announcement, said Frank Dobisky, a former Associated Press reporter and the president of Dobisky Associates, a New Hampshire firm that specializes in media relations for universities. Any news outlet that covered the pre-announcement was more or less locked in to following up the next week, he said.
“From a tactical standpoint,” Dobisky said, “it’s good bang for your buck.”
That was the thinking at Yale, where administrators and staffers in the Office of Public Affairs debated whether to unveil the two announcements at once or separate them by a week. Seeing just the strategic benefit, they chose the latter, officials said.
And, sure enough, the media outlets that covered the first announcement came running back on Monday.
“One really laid the groundwork for the other — every endowment story we got mentioned that next week, Yale will be making a major financial-aid announcement,” Director of Public Affairs Helaine Klasky said on Tuesday. “Then,” she said, “when we made it, anyone who mentioned it then wrote about it.”
And so on Tuesday, the news of the announcement was carried in The Times, the Washington Post and the Journal, along with newspapers in at least 40 states that printed wire service articles about the aid plan, Yale officials said. The news also appeared in publications in more than a dozen countries.
And it matters, experts said, despite the fact that lesser institutions would covet even a fraction of the coverage Yale typically receives — and that a story on page A14 of The Times, as was the case Tuesday, would be a dream for many of them.
Still, while cooing over media placement might seem vain, the competition among the nation’s top universities to woo the best of the best applicants makes it an important strategic consideration, said Bob Oxman, vice president and director of creative services for Paskill Stapleton & Lord, a marketing and communications firm that specializes in higher education.
Oxman would know: His daughter, a senior in high school, might have considered Yale if Monday’s announcement had been made sooner, he said.
“It’s certainly going to affect enrollment,” Oxman said. “From a marketing standpoint, whatever an institution puts out there that benefits its general image also helps them throughout all their recruiting efforts.”
That was not lost on Yale officials. Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said his office was pleased with the publicity, even if it did not quite measure up to what Harvard received.
“The important thing will be that the news gets in the hands of people who will apply to Yale,” Brenzel said. “I feel completely comfortable that that will happen.”
Overall, the experts said Yale got as much coverage as it could have wished for, considering the prospects they were facing after Harvard’s pre-emptive announcement. The day of Harvard’s announcement, marketing consultant Bob Johnson told the News that if he were a Yale P.R. staffer, “I’d be muttering and cursing.”
“Timing is everything,” Johnson said, “and Harvard got a scoop on it.”
That much Yale was unable to change, cleverness aside.
“Certainly there’s going to be a ‘me too’ element of any story that was written by national reporters about this event,” said Dick Jones, a Pennsylvania-based public relations consultant specializing in higher education.
And, sure enough, virtually every article about Yale’s announcement mentioned Harvard in the first sentence or two. But Yale officials said they didn’t mind. Or at least, if they did, they would not admit it.
“When you’re following a major announcement, it’s a predictable storyline,” Klasky said. “It’s fine.”