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Advice to HBCUs: Use the Media To Your Advantage

Advice to HBCUs: Use the Media To Your Advantage

As a product of a historically Black university, I am very tired of continuously defending the legal viability, constitutional justification and the significance of HBCUs.We all understand that racism is a prevalent dynamic in our society. However, even more frightening, we must realize that the mass media continue to be the leading collective provider of information for billions of Americans. This channel of communication provides countless individuals with daily images and interpretations of their known and unknown outside worlds.
The ability that the mass media have to reach such a large number of people at one time is astonishing. For example, research shows that the half-hour nightly newscasts of the three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, provide 37 million Americans with their images — and interpretation — of the outside world. Thus in today’s society, media outlets play a powerful role in shaping public opinion and setting the public’s agenda.
The news media have long been criticized for the portrayal of minorities, primarily due to the stereotypes that news organizations help to reinforce and for their penchant to ignore minority communities.
Political journalist Walter Lippmann said, “The subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those perceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar, and the somewhat strange as sharply alien.”
HBCUs, often acclaimed “the salvation of black folks,” engraved in American history the opportunity for freedom through education for Blacks. For the most part, they were established after the abolition of slavery for the purpose of educating Black people, and a primary role of these institutions has been to produce African American leaders.
However, as the media continue to shoot messages out to consumers regarding these institutions, negative public perceptions of HBCUs continue to increase. Many attempts are made to discredit HBCUs, by advancing the argument that students who attend them are ill-prepared to function effectively and successfully in “the real world” due to their limited contact with Whites. Second, opponents continue to deem HBCUs academically inferior to predominantly White institutions by indicting HBCUs’ top management of woeful mishandling of administrative and academic business. Third, opponents feed into the stereotypes that Blacks are only good for entertainment and in sports through their contributions to annual events that feature Greek step shows, battles of the bands, football and basketball classics, and the like.
Yet, proponents of HBCUs seek to dispel the negative arguments by asserting that HBCUs suffer from an identity crisis — they lack visibility and are frequently “invisible,” unknown and considered basically all the same. Other proponents retort that, while improvements are needed in many respects, the overall benefits of the educational experience at HBCUs are significant and cannot be duplicated as students develop intellectually and build life skills and personal confidence about their identity, heritage and mission in society.
The issues facing HBCUs are serious and appurtenant to effective public relations. No longer can the media be indicted for feeding negative stereotypes about HBCUs. It is imperative that these institutions develop and use public relations as a proactive process of planning and evaluating the identity factors that influence critical images of the HBCUs — images relative to academic, operational and competitive standing. The public relations process, components, structures and philosophies, which promote the development of mutually satisfying relationships between top management of the HBCUs and their congruous publics (i.e., faculty, students, alumni, administrators, board members, mass media, parents, and academic and professional organizations) must be recognized, cultivated and satisfied. It is also a necessity for HBCUs to recognize the importance of designing an encyclopedic plan of action to improve and enhance relationships that benefit both management and relevant groups.
A replacement for effective public relations does not exist. Historically Black colleges and universities must implement a two-step process: Focus on the relationships with their key publics and communicate involvement of those activities and programs to build the relationship between the institution and its key publics. Relationship dimensions must be viewed as part of an integrated mix that includes the importance of designing a comprehensive plan of action. The effort will aid in positioning the HBCU for effective media coverage, competitive standing and internal communication — which will ultimately change public perception of the validity of the HBCU. 

— Del Stewart, APR, is executive assistant to the president and chief of staff at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Miss.

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