PR Case Study: Sparking a National Dialogue on Student Mental Health
In August 2019, BU public health researchers Dr. Sarah Lipson and Dr. Julia Raifman, along with collaborators, released a study related to the largest and most comprehensive mental health survey of college students in the United States. Published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the findings revealed that students who identify as transgender, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, and nonbinary face enormous mental health disparities relative to their peers.
Public Relations Breakthrough
The study garnered over 30 pieces of high-impact coverage in publications such as the Daily Mail, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Reuters, Inside Higher Ed, STAT, Healio, Channel Q radio, and more. BU’s Public Relations team worked with WGBH, a local broadcast station, to coordinate and film a TV and radio segment on the research and its wider impact. On social media, the story had over 1,286 engagements and reached over 59,000 people via Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. The Brink story received over 1,300 unique page views, and on EurekAlert the study attracted over 3,000 views.
The Research Team
Dr. Lipson and Dr. Raifman, School of Public Health, as well as their collaborators from Harvard and University of Michigan. Each collaborator contributed quotes for press outreach and coordinated on media availability. This team approach ensured that there was always at least one expert on hand to staff an interview and that the media had more than one perspective on the survey.
The MarCom Team
Early on, Dr. Lipson alerted Marketing & Communications of her upcoming study. She shared the article proofs with MarCom’s PR | Social Media team and The Brink, which allowed them to read the study in advance, strategize an effective promotion plan, and coordinate accordingly. The Brink and Public Relations met with Dr. Lipson for an in-take meeting to better understand the research and findings. This conversation helped the MarCom team distill the main messages, identify key audiences and publications to target, and learn what other stakeholders and assets were available to support the broader promotion effort.
External Collaborators & Journal
Following the meeting, Dr. Lipson connected the PR | Social Media team with her collaborators and also with the journal so that they could coordinate and finalize the publication date. The ability to coordinate with the journal so far in advance allowed the Public Relations team to have control of the publication date and ensure it aligned with the researcher’s schedules and availability. The PR | Social Media team was also able to coordinate with the collaborating institutions on the traditional and social promotion effort.
- Media outreach to journalists at trade and mainstream outlets, and beat-specific reporters interested in education, public health, and gender minority issues. Outreach was conducted under embargo to priority reporters and then to a wider audience once the study was live.
- Sharing the news on EurekaAlert, a science news distribution source.
- Social media outreach, including sharing the research over BU’s thought-leadership Twitter and Facebook channels, re-sharing media hits and influencers’ posts highlighting the research, and targeting audiences through paid social campaigns.
- Coordination with BU’s School of Public Health (26,700+ Twitter followers), partner institutions Harvard Medical School and University of Michigan School of Public Health, resulting in cross-promotion on Twitter in front of Harvard’s 322,000+ followers and Michigan’s 15,800+ followers.
- Outreach to Futurity, which features research from top universities. Futurity republished The Brink’s article, which was then picked up and promoted on social by Mental Health America (319,600+ Twitter followers). Mental Health America’s promotional tweet was then retweeted by Futurity for their 20,000+ followers.
Lead time is crucial
Alert the PR | Social team and The Brink as soon as your paper gets accepted to a journal or conference. Providing ample time to coordinate a promotion strategy will ensure your research gets maximum visibility.
Connect your network
Whether it be your research collaborators, fellow researchers in the same area of study, funding agencies, or partner organizations, your network can help amplify and promote your work. Both Dr. Lipson and Dr. Raifman were able to tap into their advocacy networks within the transgender community, infusing the perspective of lived experiences into the study while also getting the word out. They also both knew journalists with a connection to the topic, who they were able to connect with the PR team.
Know your audience
Dr. Lipson knew the study’s key audiences were higher education leadership and LGBTQ students and young adults. The broader public and those interested in public health and healthcare issues were secondary audiences. Dr. Lipson and her collaborators tailored their messaging – both in media interviews and written commentary – to each audience group to make sure their messages resonated. For Dr. Lipson, this was sometimes as simple as sharing messages in accessible formats, such as through the survey’s email list.
Be available and responsive
Dr. Lipson and her co-authors made themselves available the week prior to the embargo lifting and the week after the research was published. They provided their schedules to the PR team in advance and they were also very responsive to the PR team and journalists who reached out directly with media requests. Being flexible and responsive helped secure media interviews and coverage.