Are News Releases a Thing of the Past? (Part Two)

David Estok, Vice President, Communications, University of Toronto
David Estok, Vice President, Communications, University of Toronto


In our previous article we talked about how one of our long-term clients, the University of Toronto, stopped issuing press releases in favour of authentic storytelling. They created a content hub that looks very much like a media newsroom.

Below is a transcript of John McKay’s interview with David Estok, Vice President, Communications at the U of T as they discuss how this approach has produced results. The conversation has been lightly edited for length.

JM: How and when do you provide U of T News stories to the reporter?

DE: We’ve been publishing these first on our own news channel, U of T News, and then sending them to news organizations, often in a targeted way based on what we think their interests might be. We also include visuals in these stories so reporters can quickly look at something and say, “yeah, I’m interested in doing my own take on that” or “nope, no interest at all.”  We use video and photos and written storytelling and then send all of that to them.


JM: What impact do you think these articles have on the early stages of the reporter’s work on a particular story?

DE: It is still the same relationship in the sense of here is some information and you can decide whether or not it is of interest to you. If you are interested, we can arrange interviews and talk to you. But I think it is faster. I think they can quickly see that this is something they are interested in. We are also doing it in a way that we hope these stories are interesting.

The U of T is content rich when it comes to authentic storytelling. There’s a lot of stuff going on here every day that’s pretty interesting so we’re just trying to put that in front of them. They then go about their jobs in pretty much the same way as they always have. They will interpret the information, do their own interviews, they will find a different angle and they will sometimes take the same approach – it’s up to them.

JM: Have you seen an increase in take-up or the volume of stories compared to the press release approach?

DE: Overall our media coverage has increased. For three years in a row we’ve seen double digit increases in media coverage. I don’t attribute all of that to this process of storytelling. We rebuilt the media relations team, we have strong leadership and we have some really good people working in media relations. We see media relations as retail service business. Our job is to connect people from the news media to our experts, researchers and scientists and we try to act as an enabler to that, to connect these folks.

For fiscal year 2017/18, the U of T was the most visible university in Canada among major Canadian print digital outlets, generating roughly twice the media profile of the next two universities, who I won’t name!


JM: Have you seen an increase in the accuracy of information in media stories?

DE: We do have our own internal newsroom and content hub so it is really important at the start that these authentic stories we are trying to tell are accurate. A good story is a good story. And I think it kind of wets their whistle and they may pursue it more deeply or from a different point-of-view but they are starting on the basis of an accurate and interesting story hopefully.


JM: How big of a role has RMA’s media training and approach to messaging played?

DE: That’s played a big role in helping our experts to feel more comfortable in working with the media, understand what they’re looking for, sometimes what they’re not looking for, and we think that is also a part of our increased coverage.


"Communications House" at the University of Toronto (exterior)
“Communications House” at the U of T

JM: You used to do big “media response lines” documents but now you’re taking a more focused approach.

DE: Yeah, when I first came we rebuilt the media team working with Althea Blackburn-Evans and hired some really good folks. We certainly increased our pitching a lot because we had been fairly dormant at that. Now what we’re finding is that we’re pitching less but getting more coverage and I think that is a result of renewing relationships with reporters and hopefully providing a really high level of service. We work really hard to connect them.

What has been your experience working in a media relations unit? Or what has been your experience as a reporter contacting them? Let us know in the comments section below.

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