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How does an Ivy League college communicate in the digital era?

A few words with Daniel Day

Home life How does an Ivy League college communicate in the digital era?
How does an Ivy League college communicate in the digital era?

At Princeton, we use an array of traditional and digital media to reach our varied audiences. On the traditional side, we mail the annual "view book" to prospective students that the admission and communications offices jointly produce. Working with other colleagues, we produce what are essentially magazines on research and engineering, and the independent editorial staff of the Princeton Alumni Weekly distributes a magazine to alumni that gets read cover to cover. On campus, our staff still recognizes the value of placing old-fashioned posters around campus to get attention for events and campaigns, especially when students are the target audience

How does an Ivy League college communicate in the digital era? 01

On the digital side, our central means for distribution of news and information to our community is the primary university website, www.princeton.edu. That site connects to a network of more than 300 other websites for administrative offices, academic departments and programs, and more. The Office of Communications produces a weekly email newsletter most of the year, and many departments and programs distribute their own email newsletters.

In the five years since my arrival at Princeton, the use of social media for communicating with our audiences has skyrocketed. Facebook remains our most wide-reaching platform, with more than half a million followers. Twitter and LinkedIn are also excellent distribution channels for university news. To reach students and prospective students, we're increasingly turning to Instagram and Snapchat, where those audiences are gravitating.

On Snapchat, one of our most engaging efforts during the school year is that on Mondays, one of our staff members goes around campus and snaps photos of the posters touting various events coming up that week. Students use their phones to do screen snaps of the posters that interest them. We're thus using a modern digital tool to leverage an old-fashioned medium to reach the proper audience.
One of the biggest challenges is getting people to pay attention to our messaging in an era where people are bombarded daily with emails, tweets, Facebook posts, direct mail and robo calls. Our voice can get lost amid the noise, and we sharpen our messages so they get right to the point and point to the right people. 

You used to be a mainstream reporter in the old media world. What is different today in the XXI century?
My career started, just out of graduate school, at a small-town newspaper where I composed stories on an IBM Selectric typewriter. The copy was scanned, printed on paper, coated with wax and slapped onto a page, which was then photographed and burned onto a metal plate that went onto the press. The paper was delivered to people around town each afternoon. After work sometimes, I'd hear my stories read that evening on local radio newscasts. But most of the time, the stories I wrote were discovered only when someone picked the paper up off their porch, and that happened just once a day, six days a week for about 12,000 subscribers in one county in the Illinois corn belt.

Today, we post news about the university through our website and social media channels, and thousands of people around the world read it within minutes on their mobile phones and tablets and desktops. They don't have to wait to get home and pick the paper up off the stoop or pull the magazine out of their mailbox.

In the 80s, we'd produce the news in text and photos, while our radio competitors could deliver only audio and the TV stations only video. Today, most news organizations are multi-media operations, and that's how we operate at the university. We are able to give our audiences a much fuller picture of the university than we could years ago.

Innovation has opened up a new media world: what do you see as an opportunity and what worries you as dangerous?
Unquestionably, the digital tools of the modern era have enabled us to reach and interact with a wider audience and tell Princeton's story in more compelling ways. Through video, we can show much more vividly the research our scholars are doing. Through live video on Facebook, we can immediately convey the vitality of campus. Our social media channels enable us not only to tell stories, but also to hear the reaction from the audience.

The ease with which modern digital tools enable us to broadcast news and information instantaneously has a dark side — others can use those same tools and platforms to spread misinformation and stir vitriolic reaction. A mob mentality can and does flourish online, with people rushing to judgment before the facts are in. Even when the facts are in, a certain percentage of the people refuse to accept them. That's worrisome.

Fake news, trolls, abuse are now a recognized issue, jeopardizing politics, education, public conversations. How can we effectively maintain a constructive dialogue online?
I believe strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and I'm proud to work for a university that is committed to those values. Part of the bargain with free expression is that one needs to listen as well as to speak, and some people merely want to shout their own views and shout down anyone who disagrees. Online, what begins as reasoned discussion often degenerates into shouting matches, a problem amplified by the proliferation of bots and other bogus accounts. 

Prior to coming to Princeton, I was the online director at a newspaper in California, where a decade ago we established a blogging platform open to anyone. Several bloggers quickly became antagonistic and cruel, pushing the limits of our online code of comment if not smashing through it altogether. Ultimately, we decided to shut the platform down, not because we wanted to limit speech but because our efforts to monitor the accounts and mediate disputes took up too much time needed on other matters. Besides, there were plenty of other platforms where people could express themselves.

Much of public commentary plays out on social media channels these days, echoing the highly polarized viewpoints that radio talk show hosts and cable TV talking heads have espoused for years. Is it any wonder that the public follows suit? Fortunately, people have the option to block combative, offensive attackers. Facebook, for example, has strong filters that manage to catch spammy and offensive posts.

While open discourse can be challenging, in the end I'd much rather put up with all its accordant problems than live in a society where there was no such opportunity to speak.

Year by year you meet at Princeton a new generation of bright students from America and the world. What do you see? What is fueling the new leaders, what worries them, what ideas and values are they sharing?
The students I've encountered at Princeton are characterized by intellectual curiosity and a commitment to service, a wonderful combination. The university encourages students to explore many areas of study, feeding that curiosity. The university also encourages students to engage "in the service of humanity," and they do in addition to their studies. Public service careers await many of our graduates and not just in government, as some graduates head into the non-profit world. It amazes me how from the small town of Princeton, New Jersey, the university draws some of the brightest minds from around the globe, then sends them back out into the world to make a difference.

Pirelli brings an Italian touch on campus: tell us about "your" Italy, memories, interests, passions, food, books...
My early impressions of Italy were of automotive origin. My father worked many years for General Motors, and from the time I was a toddler he taught me to identify every make and model of car on the road. He'd bring me to the assembly line at his plant to watch the cars come through, and my favorites were always the red ones (you can see where this is going!). 

My favorite toys were cars, and as I learned to read I spent a lot of time with the sports pages of the newspaper. Baseball and auto racing were my favorites, as an old scrapbook confirms. While most cars on the road in my childhood during the late 1950s and the 60s were American-made, I was very much aware of the mystique of European models, particularly the Ferraris on the racing circuits lined with hay bales and festooned with signs for Pirelli, Esso and other brands. Far removed from my home in suburban Cleveland, Monza and the Mille Miglia were part of a wider world that I hoped to experience someday. 

As I entered high school, I was swept up in the study of Latin and the classical Roman world. Caesar, Cicero and other great Romans brought those ancient times alive to me.  In college, I majored in the classics and minored in art history, giving me a deep appreciation for Roman and Italian culture. It's a wonder I've never been "ad Romam," and I long to visit not only the Eternal City, but the rest of the marvelous country of Italy as well.

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