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Cathy Lucas (left) speaks during the weekly Tuesday morning editorial meeting. Photo by Alyson McClaran

Chief of storytelling

Here’s how to become a public relations person of the year – by doing the opposite of public relations.

June 19, 2017

By Cory Phare

Not that long ago – and indeed, still a common practice elsewhere – a university’s communication roadmap followed a predictable arc: Person wins prestigious award, a press release gets generated, it goes out to email inboxes – and is largely unread.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

It isn’t just boring. It’s an ineffective, outdated way to get someone to tell your story.

So what if instead of trying to convince members of the news media to do the heavy lifting, you provided them with a fully-formed package of images, video and an in-depth researched feature?

That’s the idea behind brand journalism. And it’s why Cathy Lucas, chief communications officer and chief of staff at MSU Denver, was named the 2017 Public Relations Society of America Person of the Year for the Colorado chapter.

By implementing a brand journalism approach at MSU Denver, Cathy Lucas received the Rocky Mountain chapter PRSA 2017 Professional of the Year award.

The opposite of PR

But this isn’t a story about an award.

It’s about the scientists you’ll never meet, who might just save your life. And the students who traded sunglasses for telescopes in their spring break road trip to a famed research facility.

In other words, it’s a story … about stories.

“Brand journalism is the opposite of public relations,” said Jim Ylisela, cofounder and managing partner of Ragan Consulting Group. “It’s disruptive – it changes so much. There are no more press releases; no more stories where the first words are ‘MSU Denver.’”

That’s because the modern media landscape has changed, as Ylisela detailed. Everyone is vying for eyeballs in an increasingly crowded attention economy. Reporters are spread thin, covering six beats instead of one, and the time of endlessly pitching with fingers crossed has gone the way of the dinosaur.

So to get the word out about MSU Denver Roadrunners' stories of transformation, Lucas realized something had to change.

“Looking at our strategic plan’s need to increase positive brand perception to 85 percent by 2020, I knew we needed to do business differently,” she said.

That meant celebrating what it means to be a Roadrunner in an honest, authentic way. And when it comes to subject-matter experts, there are thousands here on campus.

After all, who better to share the MSU Denver story than those living it every day?

The staff meets Tuesday mornings for the weekly editorial meeting for the Marketing and Communications Department in the Student Success Building. Photo by Alyson McClaran

It’s a great day to tell the story

“When people hear ‘It’s a great day to be a Roadrunner,’ it describes the lives led by our students and University community; that’s a huge part of our brand,” said MSU Denver President Stephen Jordan.

It hasn’t always been that way, though.

As Jordan noted, the work of building the MSU Denver brand really began with shifting public opinion.

“The hard part was changing peoples’ perceptions about what we do, and helping them see who we are,” he said. “But the MSU Denver story has always been one of transformation, and we’ve really embraced that ourselves.”

Jordan noted the creation of sub-brands, such as the College of Business, public-private partnerships and the University’s role in teacher education as examples. Each fits under the larger MSU Denver umbrella, but has targeted audiences and messaging reached through the practice of brand journalism.

According to Lucas, moving the storytelling element to a pillar of the University’s strategic plan said a lot about the value of a department’s work – and was the key to further inquiry.

“What is the promise we’re making to our stakeholders? Are we achieving it?” she asked.

And at the center of it all? Her strategy to execute a story-centered communication strategy.

“She’s really been the linchpin in all this; the rock we’ve been anchored through on this whole journey,” Jordan said.

Lucas giving an acceptance speech at the 2017 PRSA Gold Pick award ceremony.

Communication success, from A to Jay-Z

Questions like these planted the seeds of a brand journalism program at MSU Denver. After lunch with a colleague at Denver Water, who’d seen national exposure from the utility's open-letter to Jay-Z, Lucas connected with Ragan to begin implementing the shift to a more effective communications model.

“Talking with [them], we asked if there were other higher education institutions who’d implemented a brand journalism model,” she said “When we heard there really weren’t, that was an even greater opportunity.”

That commitment led to the hiring of two staff writers, and a restructuring of the communications platforms. Instead of the text-heavy daily newsletter that went to both internal and external audiences, MSU Denver employees now receive an image-laden, Skimm-like overview.

For RED – the external-facing digital news magazine – the department moved away from a static newsroom environment. The result is a media-rich feature publication platform, with stories highlighted in a biweekly email digest.

The approach is working, too: Pieces about MSU Denver are reaching the news media like never before. Open rates and social media activity continually are on the rise. And more anecdotally, Roadrunners are proactively reaching out to be featured in segments like the Professor’s RoomCoffee Break podcasts and Roadrunner Rewind weekly recap videos.

As Ylisela put it, “Content plus engagement equals success.”

This success is how you win PRSA Professional of the Year by practicing a kind of anti-PR.

For Lucas, the recognition is nice, but it’s all part of a bigger story – the MSU Denver story.

“It means a lot that the president and Board of Trustees have put their trust in this, and I’m truly humbled by the award,” she said.

“But it’s really about the MSU Denver community. It’s never been a more important time to be recognized nationally for what we’re all doing right here on campus.”

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