How one university handled a media onslaught during the 2010 Gulf oil spill


This week at a higher education conference in New Orleans I had the privilege of listening to four members of Louisiana State University’s media relations team discuss how they handled the influx of journalists wanting expert sources during the Gulf oil spill of 2010.

LSU’s faculty was a go-to source for journalists seeking oil industry and research experts prior to the 2010 oil spill. When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April 2010, the phones of LSU’s media relations pros began ringing, and they didn’t stop for months. Journalists were looking for LSU faculty members who could help explain what was going on and the implications of the disaster.

“Initially, we just called anyone who could answer the reporters’ questions,” one of the panel members said in an effort to explain the madness of the first several days. One expert came to the forefront, and since he was a retired professor, he could juggle multiple interviews daily. In fact, he and his LSU media relations comrades did such a great job of organizing his expertise amid the chaos to establish his authority on the subject that David Letterman had him on his show: and he didn’t want anyone else except this LSU professor.

The reason this particular professor was such a great spokesman is every higher education marketer’s dream: he had an amiable personality and an ability to put complex, important information into terms non-academics can understand. This professor’s ability to do this explains his popularity with Letterman and outlets like CNN and FOX news.

In an effort to help alleviate the 24/7 contact they were having with reporters, the LSU team organized a webpage for journalists that contained experts’ names, along with area of expertise, a little bit of background info, and contact information. Of course, each of these faculty experts had given the media relations team prior permission to be a part of the webpage. (No decent higher education marketer would ever promote a faculty member as an expert without her or his permission.) The webpage also contained other information important to both media and LSU community relations.

This isn’t the first crisis the LSU media relations department has been through. They also went into bunker mode during Hurricane Katrina. Someone from the audience asked the panel about staff burnout during the oil spill, and the answer one panelist gave was excellent. The media relations staff was on call 24/7 for many weeks. Every three days, one staff member got the day off. What a great way to maximize employee efforts while showing that you care about them as humans.

As coverage of the oil spill increased with media outlets using LSU experts, more professors wanted to be tapped as resources, which is another higher education marketer’s dream. Throughout all of this, many faculty members developed close relationships with journalists, one benefit for all involved amid an otherwise disastrous situation.

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