Getting Psyched

Posted on December 9, 2011 in Uncategorized by Susan

 I’ve always been fascinated by psychology.  I never formally studied it, but I like to consider myself somewhat of an amateur analyst – I love to observe people. Human behavior is endlessly interesting. And funny. And weird. And unpredictable.

 So covering the Department of Psychology and getting an opportunity to work with the faculty researchers there is really a fun part of my job. Most of the time, the studies offer new insight and reveal some really cool, counterintuitive results. 

 But other times, the results, though perhaps not entirely counterintuitive, are still really cool because they offer comfort and validation that we humans are pretty nice, “normal” creatures.

Like Darcia Narvaez’s work in the moral development of children.  She’s identified six parenting practices that appear to help children, well, be nice. These practices – like encouraging kids to play outside and cuddling your toddler, are pretty natural things for parents to do, so it’s somehow comforting to know that they actually have long-lasting, positive implications.    Clearly, other people found Darcia’s work interesting as well, since her study appeared everywhere from MSNBC to Women’s Day

Then there’s Gabe Radvansky’s study on walking through doorways causing forgetting. Talk about R-E-L-I-E-F!  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gotten up, walked purposefully into another room, then promptly forgotten what I was going to do.  I suffered in silence and assumed it was just the beginning of old age. Not that I’m old yet or anything. Apparently, lots of people were equally relieved about their forgetting, and word of Gabe’s study was picked up far and wide: CBS News, National Geographic and U.S. News and World Report are just a small sample of the interest in this one.

Most recently, Jill Lany published a study on how babies actually can identify nouns and verbs in spoken language even before they can speak. All that listening they do in the first year of life is actually priming them for speaking the following year. 

All of it’s so amazing when you really stop and think about it – that babies are born ready to communicate, that parents do have influence over whether or not their kids grow up to be nice adults, and that forgetting what you’re doing in another room is a universal frustration.

We humans are cool creatures.


Memories, like the corners of my…doorways?

Posted on November 17, 2011 in Uncategorized by Susan

I don’t consider myself old, exactly, but I am at the age when I’ve begun to notice some changes that I’ve always associated with, well, old people.

 Like aching joints. Wanting to go to sleep at 7:30 in the evening.  And forgetting.  Lots of forgetting…

 So I was both heartened and fascinated by some new research by Notre Dame Psychology Professor Gabe Radvansky that shows that doorways – not aging – may be responsible for those times that I’ve walked into a room and completely forgotten why.

 C’mon. You know what I’m talking about.

 Turns out that the brain considers doorways “event boundaries” and files away information, separating episodes of activity into different compartments, making it difficult to retrieve a decision or thought that was created in a different room.

 Makes sense to me.

 Now if only I could find research showing that wanting to eat dinner at 4:30 is a sign of superior intelligence, not aging…


“…where the Catholic Church does its thinking”

Posted on November 11, 2011 in Uncategorized by Susan


As the tragedy of the Penn State scandal unfolded this week, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the sex-abuse crisis that has plagued– and to an extent, still is plaguing — the Catholic Church.  The silence. The denial. The pain of innocent vicitms.

The worst of the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church seems to be over — and whether or not you agree with the punishments and consequences, at least it’s out there. It’s acknowledged.  It’s changed the Church forever.

Father Ted Hesburgh has been famously quoted as saying, “Notre Dame is where the Catholic Church does its thinking.” 

In the wake of the Catholic Church’s transformative tragedy, Notre Dame economist Dan Hungerman has crystallized Father Ted’s saying with his recent study on the effects of the sex-abuse crisis on the Catholic Church, which show that the Baptist Church in America has benefitted most — both financially and in terms of new members.

Hungerman’s study suggests that instead of Catholics substituting their religion for a similar tradition, such as Episcopal or Anglican as would be expected, the majority of Catholics chose the Baptist faith — a Protestant faith most distant in culture and tradition from Catholicism.  Tragic on so many levels and understandable on just as many — this need to get as far away from the pain and betrayal.

Yet through it all, Notre Dame continues to encourage its scholars to create new knowledge and engage the Catholic Church in its thinking. Even if it’s painful and exposes tragedy and sickness and betrayal.  That’s what being a university means. 




The Danger of Pitching a Trend Story

Posted on November 7, 2011 in Uncategorized by Susan

It wasn’t something I’d thought too much about —  until it happened to me…

I had pitched a great Notre Dame trend story to a journalist at a top newspaper. Not only did he go for the pitch, he wanted an exclusive — Yay me!  So I thought…

After arranging several phone interviews between the journalist and the director of the program being featured in the story, then being copied on their email exchanges, I began to notice a shift in the focus of the story.  Hmmmmm. Subtle at first, then clearly a new, sexier angle that  had only a little bit of a Notre Dame connection began floating to the top.  Then the shift  began pushing Notre Dame farther and farther into the background of this story.

It was a runaway train and there was nothing I could do about it.

The story came out a few days later, and as I had feared,  Notre Dame had been relegated to two lines on the second page of the story, just one of several institutions contributing to this national trend.

 I wanted to scream. Then cry. I had done the leg work. I had developed a compelling pitch. Notre Dame was on the cutting edge of this trend, so how could we NOT be central to the story?

So what did I learn from this?

  • First, don’t beat yourself up too much.  I mean, you tried, right? You can’t control what the journalist decides to write about.
  • Don’t let one bad experience prevent you from pitching a great trend story again. Next time, you could hit the jackpot!
  • You’ve made a new media friend. Appreciate that the journalist is likely to open your next email and read your pitch since you provided such a great idea, even if it didn’t go the way you had hoped.
  • Don’t be afraid to cash in…”You owe me one” is a phrase that I’m not afraid to use.


Size DOES Matter (in a subject line)

Posted on October 27, 2011 in Uncategorized by Susan

It seemed like the perfect pitch.  Concise. Enticing. Relevant. Just enough information to pique the interest of reporters. This is going to be big, I thought to myself.  Viral big.

I was wrong.

I waited a few hours, then checked in with the faculty member whose cool research I was pitching to see if he had received any direct calls. Then waited another day. Nothing.

I was disappointed and perplexed. I usually have a pretty good news sense and know what will take off.

So I did what any self-respecting public relations professional does: I complained to my colleague: “Why wouldn’t journalists be all over this?” “This pitch is great…I don’t get it!” Shannon politely pretended to listen and nodded her head then shook her head and continued typing, never once taking her eyes off the computer screen.

Then it dawned on me.  Maybe it’s not the pitch at all. Maybe it’s the subject line, that first impression of the pitching world. I’ve heard the rule of thumb is that a subject line should be no longer than eight words.  Sometimes I follow that, sometimes I don’t. And this time, I didn’t.

 So I tested that rule of thumb and not only shortened my subject line, but I enlisted the help of one of my superstar creative copywriter colleagues, Mike Roe, who’s known to make words sing. And he did.

 My subject line went from “Learning and remembering linked to position of hands, new research shows,” to Mike’s recommendation: “Learning by heart linked to hands, research shows.” (news release)

Not significantly shorter – 11 words to 8 words – but something about the snappy, casual quality of the new and improved subject line did the trick.  I re-sent to the same group of journalists and voila! Within ten minutes, I had responses from, UPI and USA Today. 

Each of the reporters seemed as if they had never seen the pitch before.  Because they hadn’t. My original subject line was too long and not inviting enough and they hadn’t bothered to open the email.

So it’s true: size does matter – in subject lines.


Adventures in higher ed public relations

Posted on October 7, 2010 in Uncategorized by Susan

I really like my job — seriously, I love what I do for a living.  I get to  learn something new every day — like what an expert says about childrearing. Or the job market. Or Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The dark side is that I learn something new every day. And am compelled to apply it to my own life. Like what an expert says about child rearing. Or the job market. Or Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  Last week, for instance, I interviewed a psychology professor whose areas of expertise include how to raise moral, compassionate, intelligent kids — which we all want, right?  She had a list of parenting practices (things like lots of positive touch, responding to baby’s cries, breastfeeding, letting your kids play freely outdoors) that research showed resulted in kids who were, well, nicer, smarter and more compassioinate than their peers who were smacked, left to “cry it out,” and stayed inside watching Jack Ass.  I was feeling pretty smug after talking to her. My kids are now 20 and almost 16, and I wasn’t a spanker. I held them, let them sleep in our bed if they wanted, breastfed them and sent them outside to play. And they didn’t watch Jack Ass. Until they started to stay up later than I did.   But then I spoke to a labor economist who studies something called the “scarring effect,”  which is the lasting, negative salary and advancement impact workers experience if they start their careers during a recession. Like the one we’re having now. Like the one that’s predicted to last a few more years. Like the one my son will face as he graduates from college in two years — and by the way, according to the labor economist, a college education won’t serve as a buffer to difficulties in the job market — it’ll make it worse because of the professional expectations. So now I’m obsessing over the possibility that my baby boy won’t be able to find a job after college if this recession lasts another two years. And that he’ll end up as the “funny uncle” living in my basement when he’s 35.  So I guess I should find comfort in the fact that if he does become a casualty of the scarring effect and is unemployed, he’ll be a compassionate, intelligent and moral jobless person….

Hello world!

Posted on June 28, 2010 in Uncategorized by Susan

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