In three years, Capella University needed to do what other universities have done over the course of centuries: Build a national reputation for academic quality.

Over the course of the year, Carmichael Lynch Spong along with Capella University generated brand awareness through a solid media relations program that garnered 16 television segments with viewership of more than five million and 296 articles with total gross impressions of more than 65 million. The media relations effort also generated 1,000 enrollment inquiries. 

Capella University is an accredited university that offers more than 500 courses and 80 degree programs. However, there’s one catch.  Capella doesn’t have dorm rooms.  Or, for that matter, classrooms.  In fact, its only address starts with three Ws and includes a couple of dots. is one of the world’s only accredited online universities.  Founded in 1993, and accredited in 1997, Capella currently teaches more than 3,000 students from 50 states and 30 countries. 

And while many consumers love the idea of shopping from home, when it comes to the hallowed halls of academia, often, the public mimics the word made familiar by “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Tradition.  And Capella has none of that. 

But it does have accreditation, the higher education industry’s sole measure of academic quality. Plus, it has a commitment to making excellent education accessible to working adults.  And it has a willingness to innovate – generally, not the strong suit of the American university. 


Surveyed Capella’s current students to determine the key factors in their enrollment decision.

Conducted a series of focus groups with information technology professionals to help launch Capella’s newest school – the bachelor’s program in information technology. 

Researched college and university guidebooks and Web sites that influence enrollment.

Polled a handful of reporters who had written on e-learning, to determine who they turned to for information. 



  • Build credibility for online education and Capella University.
  • Stimulate inquiries from prospective students.
  • Generate broad awareness of Capella University among targeted news audiences. 

Target Audiences

  • Working adults, especially those with families
  • Education industry influencers
  • Training and HR directors


$300,000 fee and out-of-pocket 


Strategy One: Generate credibility by positioning Capella University staff and faculty as online learning experts with tier one media.

Target the Leaders

Capella University and CLS identified a list of publications that were most influential in establishing credibility: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Newsweek, Business Week, Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report

CLS leveraged Capella CEO Steve Shank’s travel schedule to arrange in-person editor briefings.  The briefings were designed to position Capella University as the thought leader in the developing e-learning industry. 

Get the analysts talking about us: CLS raised the profile of Capella University among the leading industry influencers and education industry consultants by including them in media material distribution efforts.  These are the people influential media turned to for information on online learning. 

Strategy Two: Drive enrollment by creating synergy with other marketing disciplines.

Go Local: Lacking funds necessary to implement a national advertising plan, Capella University targeted a short list of cities and reached them through regional editions of national publications such as Business Week.  The markets were:

  • New York City
  • Chicago
  • Philadelphia
  • Minneapolis/St. Paul
  • Houston
  • Denver

In these markets, CLS identified local students who could serve as case studies for the success of online education.  These students provided the hometown angle CLS needed for local market media relations.

Make a non-visual story, visual: CLS created a b-roll package including Capella University Web shots, footage of people studying online, footage of Capella University’s graduation ceremony and sound bites from students and faculty.

Make communications work together: As Capella increased its presence through advertising, CLS helped Capella create marketing materials that ensured prospective students would be greeted with the same look and feel they saw in the ads.  CLS worked on two sets of materials:

CLS and Capella generated four-page, two-color view books – collateral pieces that outline the course offerings of each school. CLS chose aspirational, achievement-based visuals that parallel many of the themes of Capella’s advertising.

CLS reconstructed Capella Education Company’s (CU’s parent company) Web site, using the aspirational themes and minimalist design that dominated Capella ads. 

Strategy Three: Turn up the volume for Capella University through media relations efforts.

Steady Stream of News: In a crowded category that includes brand names such as Harvard, Stanford and Duke, attracting attention from national media can be tricky.  Lacking a national reputation in the broader, higher education market, Capella needed a strong news distribution strategy to be top of mind. 

CLS and Capella accomplished this through a series of targeted media kits and a steady distribution of news.  Media kit distribution included four key vertical markets, which correspond with Capella’s schools:

  • Business
  • Education
  • Psychology
  • Information Technology


Capella University and CLS had to overcome a handful of challenges:

Considered “me, too” – Capella was the first accredited fully online university.  However, it began public relations efforts late in 1999, long after other online universities received publicity.  Therefore, while Capella was really first, it was initially seen as a “me, too.”

Crowded category – Online education is new, but traditional universities have been aggressively filling the space.  Therefore, Capella had the daunting challenge of differentiating its unproven online curriculum with that of time-honored, trusted names such as Duke and NYU that were developing online programs.

Parochial Media – Media coverage of education generally falls into two categories: local coverage that exclusively profiles local institutions and national coverage that focuses on a handful of brand name institutions – such as Harvard, Yale and MIT. Generating coverage for Capella requires that education media completely change the way it views the education market.  


Objective One: Build credibility for Capella University and e-learning

Capella scheduled in-person briefings and phone discussions with higher education and technology reporters from the The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes.  These briefings resulted in coverage in all of these publications, for six million total impressions. 

CLS scheduled phone and in-person briefings with two key analysts that research determined reporters turned to for information.  These briefings resulted in coverage in the analysts newsletters as well as top-of-mind status.  This higher profile led one of the analysts to extol Capella’s virtues to publications such as Family Circle and Newsweek.

Capella received coverage in six of the eight key publications targeted. 

Objective Two: Stimulate inquiries and drive enrollments

Media relations effort has dramatically affected inquiries.  For example, after a Houston news station ran a story on Capella University, Capella received more than 50 inquiries in three days, three times more than it had received from the whole state of Texas to date.

Media relations efforts alone generated more than 1,000 documented inquiries.

Year to date, Capella University has experienced a 300 percent return on its public relations investment from enrollment credited to public relations activities.

PR-related inquiries tripled the total from all of 1999.

Objective Three: Generate broad awareness

CLS media relations efforts generated more than 296 media placements, for 65 million gross impressions.
CLS and Capella generated broadcast coverage in all six target markets.  In addition to effectively communicating all of Capella University’s key messages, these efforts generated 16 placements, with viewership of more than five million.