UofL has stories to tell and people to tell them
People who have lived in Louisville for any time, and who watch the ABC affiliate for local news, know Mark Hebert, a longtime investigative reporter who in 2009 became spokesman for the University of Louisville.
UofL Today recently caught up with Hebert when he didn't have a cell phone to his ear answering reporters' questions and talked to him about his role and that of his office.
UofL Today: What is your role as director of media relations and university spokesman for UofL?
Hebert: My main role is to sell the good news about the University of Louisville, try to manage the bad news and respond to media inquiries. I think the people who work at UofL take for granted a lot of the good news stories and cool things that are happening at the university. They shouldn't, and the public shouldn't. So it's my job and the job of the media relations department, to find those stories and package them in a way that reporters, bloggers and assignment editors will find interesting. They, in turn, will hopefully share those stories with the public.
And while I'd love to say that there's never anything bad that happens at UofL, we all know that people make mistakes and bad things will happen anywhere. As a former reporter I learned a long time ago that facing controversy head on, telling the truth and admitting mistakes will shorten the life span of a "bad" news story. It's my job to offer advice to university officials and be the face of UofL, if needed, in tough situations.
Responding to media inquiries takes up much of the time for me and my staff. I think we're very good at finding answers, campus experts and the right people for reporters to talk to. Quick responses improve our credibility with the media and helps when we call them pushing a UofL story we'd like to see in the media.
UofL Today: You came to UofL about a year and a half ago from a career in TV news. What is it like to be on the "other side?"
Hebert: You can't believe how many people have asked me that question! I tell them I like my job, and that the skills I learned as a reporter — dealing with people, gathering information and being straightforward (some say brutally blunt) and honest — are the same skills I'm using as a PR person. It has taken me some time getting used to having more bosses and not being able to have a final product off my desk by the time the 5 o'clock news roles around.
UofL Today: What is the purpose of the media relations office? In other words, when or why would someone in the university contact you or one of your staff members?
Hebert: We're here to help UofL faculty, staff and administrators tell their stories. It's that simple. A big grant, groundbreaking research, a new student service, statistics that show UofL's improvement, a good deed — anything that the general public might see as "fun," entertaining or informative — those are the types of things we love to promote. Too many folks on campus don't think to pick up the phone and tell us about neat things they've got going on in their shop. They should. We'll let them know if they're newsworthy or not.
UofL Today: Do you handle all of the media relations for the university?
Hebert: No. Communications and Marketing has an office at the Health Sciences Center. Gary Mans and his team handle media relations down there.
UofL Today: Do you pitch stories just to Kentucky media?
Hebert: We pitch stories to local, national and, sometimes, international media. Oftentimes a simple story may garner far more interest outside Louisville. For instance, Monica Marks becoming a Rhodes Scholar is a great story for UofL. When you add in her incredible personal story of growing up in a small town in eastern Kentucky, in a church that doesn't see the value of a higher education — but in a family that was determined to see her become the first in her family to attend college — the story had plenty of interest from media outside Louisville.
UofL Today: Do you do other things, such as send press releases?
Hebert: My incredible staff handles most of the news releases. They're better writers than I am.
UofL Today: Are there criteria for determining when you contact the media about an event or something else you might promote to the media?
Hebert: It's really kind of a crapshoot on what we'll promote to the media. Just because an event is going to have lots of people at it, doesn't mean it's newsworthy. But a small gathering that's visual, fun or has an interesting twist to it may be just the sort of thing we can sell to the media.
UofL Today: How far out before an event should someone contact your office?
Hebert: Folks should try to contact us at least a couple of weeks before their event so we can schedule video and photo crews. We work closely with the UofL Today journalists, too, so advanced notice gives them time to plan coverage, assuming the event warrants coverage.
Remember, just because an event may not be of interest to the public, it may have widespread interest on campus so folks need to let us hear about them.
UofL Today: How does someone at UofL go about getting help from your office?
Hebert: They can call 852-6171, and Linda Erman will direct them to the right person.
UofL Today: What should faculty or staff do if the media contacts them directly?
Hebert: That most likely won't happen unless a reporter is calling because of the faculty or staff member's area of expertise. We have an online guide to faculty experts by subject, and media can get contact information there. In those cases, go ahead and talk to them! It's good for the university and good for the faculty member to have their subject knowledge quoted in the media, just let me know that you've talked to a member of media. If a reporter calls asking faculty or staff for their personal views on something that's happening at the university, they should feel free to talk to the media — if they want to. They also should feel free to decline or refer the call to me or someone in the Belknap or HSC Media Relations department. If they choose to talk about university policy or actions by UofL employees or students, they'll be speaking only for themselves and not the university. Only I, Gary Mans (HSC), President Ramsey, Provost Willihnganz or someone designated by the administration can do that.
UofL Today: What should I have asked that I didn't know to ask?
Hebert: I haven't lost any more hair since taking this job in May 2009. I think that's a good sign.