The Shadowy World Of Education PR Companies

CommunicationWorks' Matt Maurer is part of the clubby world of education PR companies -- the folks who help package and present reports, help make sure that initiatives get press coverage, and generally try and connect their customers -- think tanks, foundations, advocacy groups -- with the mainstream press and the public.

On the HotSeat, Maurer won't say how much he charges his clients and won't talk about the recent CEP/New York Times fiasco (in which the Times broke or got leaked part of a CEP report on NCLB implementation, and the blogosphere went wild over how the report was presented). But he does remind us that the Associated Press -- not the NYT -- is the way to reach the most readers, talks some very mild trash about his competitors (Widmeyer, KSA-Plus), and says he wants EdWeek to give him equal time for the space they gave Widmeyer earlier this month.


What’s your role at CommunicationWorks and who else is there at the company?

MM: I’m director of media relations, and I manage most of our larger projects and oversee all of our media projects. Shep Ranbom and Mary Callahan founded the company in 1997, and both have strong backgrounds in education and policy. Judith Weitz is another senior staff member who for many years was a state organizer and lobbyist for the Children’s Defense Fund, and who later founded KIDS COUNT.

How big is the company, in terms of revenues, clients, or whatever?

MM: We’re currently about 15 people, and we’ve probably worked with about 150 different clients in the last 10 years; though about 15-20 are usually active at any given time. Our estimated billings for this year are in the $2-2.5 million range.

What are some of your big clients these days, and what exactly do you do for them?

MM: We are working with the National Assessment Governing Board to release The Nation’s Report Card results of student achievement on NAEP. We’re also doing a lot of work with Achieve and its American Diploma Project Network, a group of 22 states working on high school reform.

What would you say has been your biggest success for a client?

MM: We’ve had a number of big successes, including overseeing communications for three National Education Summits, the most recent of which drew the attention of over 100 million Americans in 2005. But we’re also proud of the fact that we’ve been able to help launch a number of organizations and projects and help more established organizations make a real impact in policy and practice. Education Week’s Quality Counts report is a good example of something that was unknown 10 years ago but has since become an important benchmark for how well the states and the nation are faring in improving public education.

Regarding the Summit, how do you come up with those numbers?

MM: The numbers are based on an analysis of media coverage and include the official circulation and viewership figures for the media outlets that covered the Summit.

If you can’t get a New York Times story, what’s second best?

MM: I’d have to say “This Week In Education.” But really, at the risk of offending our good friends in New York, the Times isn’t always necessarily the ultimate hit. It depends on what kind of audience you are trying to reach. If you want to get to opinion leaders and influentials, you can’t beat the Times. But the Associated Press may be the one single outlet that reaches the most readers in the country, online and in print, period. USA Today probably reaches the largest number of “regular Americans,” and the Post is unparalleled for getting to the policy community and the Hill. And we haven’t even gotten to Oprah. So they’re all really important in different ways and that’s how we approach working with them.

What's your view on embargoes and exclusives? Use ‘em? Give ‘em?

MM: Exclusives might make sense under certain circumstances, but we don’t really like them, and we’ve rarely used them. We regularly use embargoes because, in releasing complex information to a broad range of reporters around country, everybody has equal access and equal time to dig into the material, which can make a big difference in the quality of reporting.

What makes CommunicationWorks different from any of the other communications firms in town (Widmeyer, KSA-Plus, etc.)?

MM: While other firms have chosen a growth model that calls for diversifying the client base (health care, technology, etc.), we’ve decided to expand within the education field to allow us to continually build from our strength – a deep and substantive expertise on the about issues, communications, and the field.

Do most clients pay for it out of their grant or have a budget line in their grant specifically for outreach?

MM: Many of the reports we release are supported by foundation grants, and normally those grants include resources that can be used for outreach. Most foundations know very well that it’s not enough just to conduct the research or write the report – you have to get it out there and make sure it gets attention from key audiences who are in position to affect – or be effected by – the findings.

Why do some reports land with a thud and others get used, referred to , etc.?

MM: So much of it depends on the value that the report offers to the field and the uniqueness and scope of the information it provides, and the bar has been raised in the last decade.

Is there just too much chatter out there for a report to break through?

MM: We talk to reporters and policy people all the time who simply cannot keep up with the glut of material they receive each week. The only way to make sure your report doesn’t get buried is to make sure that it provides critical new information on a major issue of the day – or an important issue that others have overlooked. Working with us doesn’t hurt, either.

Can you tell ahead of time whether a report is going to make a big splash, or is there still a big unknown element?

MM: You usually have a pretty good idea. There are some reports that we expect to get more play that don’t, depending on what else is happening in the world that day. I’ll never forget the time we released a report on the same day that the Monica Lewinsky/Linda Tripp tapes were released. So we understood why the networks weren’t calling. At the opposite end of the spectrum, some reports have a more limited reach and aren’t intended to be the next A Nation At Risk. But we work to ensure that those reports get the level of penetration and visibility they deserve.

What did you think of the Widmeyer column in EdWeek the other day, and EdWeek’s decision to run it?

MM: Well, I used to work for Scott and Ed Week is a client, so I can’t say anything bad, can I? I think Scott has a good point. Kind of what I was talking about earlier – the bar has been raised for what’s going to cut it in the education and communications marketplace, and you have to have evidence to back up your information and ideas in order to be credible, especially as the education space gets more complex and as media, consumers, providers, etc. develop a more sophisticated understanding of the issues. As far as Ed Week’s decision to run the piece, we’re now going to have to call them and ask for equal time.


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