While in a Ph.D. program in international relations at the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C., I wasn’t in demand as a news source. Graduate students aren’t considered ‘newsworthy,’ defined as subjects of interest, importance, excitement, or sensation; we are in the process of becoming something, but not yet finished. The news media system prefers doers, not those who are still in the process of becoming.
Once I was out of graduate school and working for the United States Information Agency (USIA), my supervisor asked me to monitor the news media coverage of our flagship Fulbright educational exchange program, and then to figure out how we might get some of our grantees covered by the media. This was no small task. Government programs aren’t considered very interesting unless something is going wrong, is unusual, or is costing too much; in government speak we call it waste, fraud and abuse. Now that’s newsworthy. A Fulbright grant is good for the personal and professional growth of that individual, but it generally doesn’t have a news angle of interest to a larger national or international audience. Perhaps tellingly, when I was awarded a Fulbright grant to the Federal Republic of Germany, I received a meager write-up in my hometown newspaper, the Greenville News, two years before a columnist at the same newspaper wrote about my trip to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). In the 1980s, the Cold War was still of notable interest. A first person account by a young college kid experiencing life behind the Iron Curtain was, undoubtedly, newsworthy.
But at the USIA, trying to garner interest about Fulbright exchange scholars beyond the hometown pride angle was slow going.
One person who broke the media silence on sponsored exchange programs without uttering a single word was 26-year-old Stanford University graduate, Amy Biehl. Her Fulbright scholarship didn’t go as planned. She never returned from her exchange to South Africa. She was murdered in a township in an atmosphere of suspicion and rage fueled by apartheid. Because of the macabre details of Amy’s death, Amy Biehl became a household name among Fulbright scholars and received international news media coverage.
I was working at USIA in the Academic Exchanges Division when we received the news of Amy’s death on August 25, 1993. For us, it started out as a scandal and soon became a media sensation. My co-workers were very concerned how we should manage our relations with the news media. As an independent foreign affairs agency that focused its efforts on influencing global publics, we weren’t used to answering calls from domestic media. It wasn’t the story we wanted told about the great benefits and prestige of the Fulbright brand. It could have been a total setback for our program if it weren’t for the courage of the Biehl family. In their sorrow they returned to South Africa to continue the work that Amy wasn’t able to complete. Her legacy continues to this day with the Amy Biehl Foundation.
The takeaway lesson from my USIA experience is that sometimes you become a story with no prior planning. You have to prepare for surprises, some bad, and others life-changing.
Never take your media relations for granted. Call it what you want: strategic communications, public relations, or advocacy. Your company’s narrative told and handled well in crisis will be a boon in times of chaos or peace.
Dr. Nancy Snow
Dr. Nancy Snow is Langley Esquire’s chief advisor for public relations, media relations, public diplomacy, and leadership branding. Dr. Snow is a two-time recipient of the Fulbright Fellowship, as a Fulbright student in the Federal Republic of Germany, and as Fulbright professor of international relations at Sophia University. She is an Abe Fellow at Keio University’s Institute of Media and Communications Research, where she is conducting research for a forthcoming book on Japan’s nation brand global image and reputation. Dr. Snow also completed the two-year Presidential Management Fellowship (PMF) at the United States Information Agency and U.S. Department of State.
When she’s not seeking out hidden meanings and spreading Southern hospitality, Dr. Snow can be found on Twitter at @drpersuasion