On a rare occasion that my university, Grand Valley State University, makes news in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is for this--students swinging naked on a moving sculpture outside the science building to parody the Miley Cyrus video "Wrecking Ball." The large ball on a cable swings over sandy ground and illustrates various principles of physics.
This followed local coverage in places like MLive.com.
The university had to take down the sculpture because it had become a little too popular with students. The university acted in response to the viral popularity, and then the news media responded to the university's actions.
I taught my media relations class in the science building yesterday (because it's a writing class, and there are limited computer labs in the building where my office is). Students had to do a writing drill and give media analysis reports yesterday, so we didn't have time to talk about this wrecking ball story. But they sure wanted to. Maybe on Monday.
I may ask them to consider why this made the news--local, national, international and the higher education trade publication. I mean, why a story about students swinging naked on a large sculpture and not, say, the academic achievements of students and faculty?
Well, I could tell them, consider the discussion earlier this semester about what news is. This is unusual. There is also a celebrity element, involving Miley Cyrus, albeit indirectly. Also, in our modern era, the social element drives news. Traditional media companies are not always in the public service, reporting on government or higher education issues that affect citizens and taxpayers yadda yadda. Yeah, they do that. But media outlets are businesses. They need to attract audience. And naked students on swinging balls does that better than a story about some student-faculty research that yielded an innovative new idea or understanding of everyday life.
I was proud of my students for staying on task and focused on serious subjects of the classroom yesterday. But now may be the time for a little levity about this as well. So, from a PR perspective, here's how to position the university in the midst of this odd publicity:
This story shows that Grand Valley State University is an exemplary model of liberal arts education. The 'wrecking ball' story illustrates physics, art, video production, communications, cultural awareness, innovation, teamwork, and possibly criminal justice.
OK. I tried. I doubt that will be the message that remains when this flurry of attention wanes. So maybe we can just hope that ArtPrize launching this week in Grand Rapids will divert attention from the university. At least until we make the news for something more significant.