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Trial by fire for the California State University San Marcos PR team

Although effective PR might not immediately be associated with educational institutions, it is an essential part of their communications. After all, the relationship between a school and members of the public is highly important for academic organizations, and a strong PR strategy enables educational institutions to position themselves in the market and increase visibility. However, when incidents or emergencies occur, academic PR teams can find themselves challenged with an essential role to provide information and prevent miscommunication. We would like to share the story of one of our clients, California State University San Marcos.

“We had set the expectation for where people could find information, and where we would be updating it. It was a much, much smoother process from our perspective. We have established ourselves, not only during emergencies, but just in general, as the source of [campus] information, and that we also provide accurate information as quickly as possible”.

Katie Chappell
Web and Social Media Specialist, CSUSM


California State University San Marcos (CSUSM) is located in northern San Diego County and is a forward-focused institution. The 30-year old university with over 16,000 students is located on a hillside, overlooking the city of San Marcos.

The institution started using Presspage in 2014. PR and Communications are very important for educational organizations. Besides students (obviously), their families and parents are the most important audience of a university, so it was imperative to set up a solid PR strategy aimed at this audience. The University needs to establish trust, it needs to be professional and consistent. Additionally, internal audiences like teachers and staff might not directly be considered a PR audience, but they need to be on the same page on messaging about the university as they communicate externally themselves. Therefore a consistent and constant information feed to internal audiences will ensure effective communication to external audiences. And lastly, there is always a need for PR on marketing and brand communications in order to attract students, investors and partners.

Presspage could support CSUSM as the simple, scalable commtech platform allowed the small communications team to do more with their time. Through the customisable newsroom, it was already easy to consistently publish content and schedule messages effortlessly.

Infernos blazing in the region

In 2014, the CSUSM PR team was put to the test. Nine infernos were blazing in the San Diego region threatening California State University San Marcos. Multiple school districts were forced to cancel classes and close schools for a few days, and CSUSM was one of them.

Katie Chappell, Web and Social Media Specialist at CSUSM all of a sudden found herself in the midst of a crisis situation. While this was definitely not ‘business as usual’ for the PR team at CSUSM, there was no time to lose. As they dealt with a deluge of information, and questions from concerned parties, the role of the PR team proved a textbook case of handling crisis communications: they established a Situation Room, where they gathered to share regular updates with the public.

Social media was monitored 24/7, with the team’s social media specialist proactively providing updates, dispelling false information, and answering panicked questions. Crucially, the CSUSM Presspage newsroom was publicly positioned as the only official source of accurate and updated info.

The role of a newsroom during a crisis situation

The Presspage newsroom truly came into its own during these wildfires. Quick and easy publishing procedures made it easy to share regular updates on the current situation. Stories could easily be enhanced with rich media and key PR elements could be added, like media libraries or press kits. Distribution was a breeze as the team only needed one platform for all channels. All press releases, posts and tweets referred back to this central newsroom hub, allowing consistent and coherent control of the message and minimizing misinformation.

And although the public collectively turned to CSUSM for information, Presspage’s auto scaling system ensured that the newsroom had sufficient capacity to handle sudden traffic spikes. Furthermore, the Presspage newsroom is platform agnostic, rendering well on mobile devices, computers, and in all major browsers – this allows everyone to easily access up-to-date info on the fires. The SEO-friendly architecture of the newsroom made information easily searchable and accessible for people requiring information.

Lessons learned

Summing up the results of their crisis response efforts, CSUSM’s social media specialist, Katie Chappell concludes there were “fewer phone calls, fewer panicked people, and the media knew where to go.” All evacuation orders were lifted by May 18, and schools resumed classes on May 19. “We had set the expectation for where people could find information, and where we would be updating it. It was a much, much smoother process from our perspective.”

Once their community was out of danger, CSUSM put every member of the response team through crisis management training workshops. They ran simulations of potential crisis scenarios. All members of the PR team were also given extra training including press interviews, social media, and Presspage publishing.

Working with Presspage post-crisis

After the crisis, the Presspage newsroom continues to offer the team many advantages. During the emergency situation, consistent and reliable information was key. Presspage enables the basic task of creating information with a headline and content, but in a standard format and context (including things like Author attribution and Tags) alongside all other releases. This saves the team time, as for example it inherits structure and content from previous pieces.

Responsibilities in the team are clearly laid out. Presspage lets team leaders assign permissions within the application, so the right people are immediately able to review work and get it out there, without having to send out emails or chat messages to get their attention.

The distribution of information is generally a time-consuming task. Through Presspage, materials can be distributed to the right audience in the right format, language and style. Presspage is an integrated application, making it easy to gather insightful data. The details of each release are clearly visible in simple charts and graphs, easy to understand for all stakeholders.

During the emergency situation, the rapid response skills of the Public Relations team were put to the test. By utilizing an online newsroom with Presspage, CSUSM was able to build stronger relationships with their audiences with less effort. The workflow no longer slows down the team and the platform helps to create impactful, well-designed content. By utilizing all the tools Presspage has to offer, CSUSM was able to find the right people to send their messages to. Moreover, they were able to monitor the results easily, all in one place. This way they can free up valuable time for the team to promote a caring, collaborative and respectful learning and working environment where all members of the campus community can thrive.

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