How do you get the news media to care about your research? Dr. Sheena Howard helps academics who want a larger media presence. She’s been featured in ABC, PBS, BBC, NPR, NBC, The L.A. Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
We talk about gaining visibility for your research. And the income you can make as an authority from things like speaking engagements! We even get into how much to charge when you speak. What should a PhD charge for a 60 minute talk? The minimum is probably more than you think.
Dr. Sheena Howard is a Professor of Communication at Rider University. She won an Eisner Award for her book, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. She is founder of the Power Your Research program. See full bio.
Meet Dr. Sheena Howard
Jennifer: Hello, everyone! Welcome to The Social Academic. I’m so excited for this interview today.
I’m speaking with Dr. Sheena Howard, a Professor of Communication. And she’s an expert at helping academics really find the media attention that they deserve. So, Sheena, I’m so excited that you’ve joined me today.
Would you mind introducing yourself for everyone?
Sheena: Sure, I’m happy to be here. A big fan of your work, Jennifer.
My name is Dr. Sheena Howard. I am the founder of Power Your Research, an academic branding company. I’m also a full professor and an author.
Jennifer: Not only are you an author, you’re an award-winning author. I’m so impressed with the amount of research that you’ve been able to produce and you’re also helping these people in so many different ways!
Can you tell me a little bit more about your research?
Sheena: My writing career started out as an academic. I did my dissertation on gender and race in comics like: comic books, comic strips, superheroes. That’s what my dissertation was on. Also, looking at African-American communication dynamics in Black comics.
Since then, I’ve been publishing fiction, non-fiction. I write comic books and graphic novels.
“All of my work is there to really inspire people to challenge the status quo, stand up for themselves, and to feel empowered when they are in situations where they feel like they need to sort of speak truth to power or just stand up for themselves.”
Jennifer: Oh, that’s really interesting! I recently got your book Why Wakanda Matters: What Black Panther Reveals About Psychology, Identity, and Communication. Your chapter was just fascinating to me. I hadn’t really thought about Black Panther in that kind of deep understanding of how people are communicating, how people are making decisions. I was just fascinated. I’m so excited for the new movie that’s coming out. I can’t wait to re-watch both of them now that I have your book.
Jennifer: One of those things that was really interesting to me is how much media attention you’ve been able to get for your comic research. I loved your appearance in Milestone Generations on HBO. I’d love to hear a little bit about how gaining media attention for your research has impacted you.
Sheena: Yeah. There’s a lot of research out there that shows that when you get media coverage and visibility it actually brings more people to your academic research articles. I know these things sound separate where academics are publishing in academic journals, and those things tend to only be read by academics.
But when you start branching out to get media coverage on NPR, BBC, all of the places you may have seen me—It actually translates into more academics citing your work, using your work. It also helps you to reach the people, the everyday people who are not in academe.
That has always been super important to me. I want to help and change the lives of people who are not in Higher Ed, who are not in the academic space. But who are actually the people that I research, and write about, and for.
Jennifer: Hmm. That’s something that so many people don’t consider, much less taking steps to even approach that.
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How much should PhDs charge for a talk or speaking engagement?
Jennifer: I know one of the reasons why some women professors especially are hoping to get more media attention is because they want to speak more about their research. They want to actually bring in some money from speaking fees. I know you have amazing advice for this.
What’s your advice for women PhDs who are looking to speak more about their research?
Sheena: When you have a PhD, or even a master’s degree, being in Higher Ed for so long in that way, especially if you are a faculty member, or want to be a faculty member…It makes us forget that our work actually has value outside of Higher Ed. By the time you get a PhD, in your mind, unfortunately for a lot of us the only thing we can do is be a professor, is to be a faculty member.
In my academic branding program I’m helping people to understand that no matter what your PhD is in, you have value outside of Higher Ed. That translates into speaking engagements because a lot of academics are asked to speak for free. Or, are asked to do a 1 hour talk for $500 or $1000. And when people do that, especially women right? When women with academic credentials do speaking engagements at those low rates, it’s actually a disservice to everybody with a PhD who is interested in doing speaking engagements.
Because it happens so often, and is so prevalent. Particularly universities and institutions think that it’s okay and normal to ask someone with a PhD to do a speaking engagement for $500 and $1000.
I’m really doing the work to empower people not to accept those rates. Because we’re in our own world, in silos, we think we have to accept those rates. Particularly for women. We like to tell ourselves, “Well I need to do these free ones, and I need to do these speaking engagements for $500 because I have to build up my speaking career. But that is not true. You already have a PhD. You’ve already defended a dissertation. You are already a subject matter expert, more so than someone that doesn’t have a PhD. And people without academic credentials are charging $10,000 for 1 hour talks. And they are not even subject matter experts in the traditional educational way.
Jennifer: We’re talking about a really big difference from what many—especially academic women—are accepting for their speaking fees (an honorarium of maybe $500 to $1000) and what other people are getting paid for their speaking fees (up to $10,000). Maybe even more depending on the talk. That’s a huge range.
What do you recommend for women? What even is a speaking fee that might be acceptable for PhDs?
Sheena: “I teach people that your speaking rate is $3500 if you have a master’s degree or a PhD for a 1 hour talk. It’s $3500. And you shouldn’t be paying to travel there so that $3500 is just the speaking fee.”
Because you have to think about the hours that you’re spending preparing the 1 hour talk. And then the talking that you have to do after you come off stage.
$3500 for a 1 hour talk is not unreasonable. It might sound unreasonable to a listener who has been only doing speaking engagements for that low rate. But I can assure you that your male counterparts are charging more than $500 or $1000 for a talk.
A lot of this is psychological. Because if you just say, “Yes,” then you’re always going to be offered $500 or $1000. Sometimes it’s as simple as responding with an email saying, “I am so honored that you reached out to me. I would love to speak at your institution. But, my speaking engagement rate is $3,500.”
Jennifer: I love that! It sounds like a simple email thanking them for the invitation and setting your rate (regardless of what they offered you) is the next move. And that’s something that’s so scary for so many people.
I mostly work with academics who are not already looking for this kind of really big paid speaking engagement rate. Or, they haven’t done it before. So if I mentioned it to them, “Oh, you should get in touch with Dr. Sheena Howard if you want to do more speaking and media things. She’s an expert in that! But your minimum rate should be $3500.” I mean their minds are just blown. It’s just a totally new concept for so many people.
And many universities too. I think you’re so right when universities get the positive reinforcement that that is the fee people are willing to accept, they are more likely to offer it to you whether they have a bigger budget or not.
Jennifer: So setting your own rate is how to protect yourself and ensure that you’re getting paid for the quality work that you’re doing:
- Actually giving the talk
- All of the networking
- Answering questions after the talk
There’s a lot of work that goes into it!
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Stop doing free talks for exposure by setting boundaries
Sheena: Right. This is why I say most of this is psychological, because a lot of times the academic will convince themselves that, “Well I don’t know. This High-End University asked me to speak. And I’ll be getting exposure.”
“No. You’re not going to get exposure. You’re not going to get a return on that investment. You’re literally only going to get what they’re paying you.”
Sometimes you have to tell them, “Hey, I suggest you come back to me once you have a chance to connect with other student organizations so you can put your budgets together.” I’ve had to tell people that and a lot of times, magically, all of a sudden they find the money.
But the point is, when you have boundaries right? Because setting your rate, not just changing the rate based on who’s asking you, means you have to have boundaries. When you have boundaries, the ball is in your court. Because if they come back and say, we really don’t have $3,500 in our budget. Well then now you get to decide.
I would say don’t do it. But now at least you get to decide. Because the best leverage you have is to walk away.
Jennifer: Right! Walking away is always an option.
One of the things that I love about what you share on LinkedIn and on Twitter, is that it is a decision-making process. Choosing whether to do that free talk, or not, is a decision-making process. You have a number of steps that you go through to decide whether it’s something that you’re open to, things like
- Having a past connection with the organization
- Being able to reach the public
- Helping more people
You have things that you’re looking for, that you will get out of the talk instead of money. I think that that’s really important too. Like, it is okay to take a free talk. But you want to think about
- How it’s going to help you
- How it’s going to help other people
- How it’s going to look like in your schedule
- What’s going to work for you
I just love everything you share about it.
Sheena: That’s right. I do teach people part of your boundaries is actually having a checklist of when you will do a speaking engagement for free.
But you shouldn’t be wavering from that checklist. If your checklist has 4 things on it, right? I’ll do a free speaking engagement if it meets X, Y, Z criteria…it has to meet all those criteria for you to do it for free. If it doesn’t, you can’t do it for free. I walk people through a criteria around doing a speaking engagement for free to determine if you should be doing that or not.
Jennifer: I love how much you’re talking about setting boundaries for yourself. Was that something that was hard for you when you first started speaking? Or, did that come naturally?
Sheena: When I talk about building a brand, you’re essentially building a business. Because you’re making money off of leveraging your academic credentials. That money goes into your business pot, not your personal pot. Because you are the business and you can’t run a successful business if you don’t have boundaries. Right?
I run my coaching program. If I just change my coaching schedule based off of everybody else’s schedule, I wouldn’t have a coaching program. Right? This is my schedule. This is when I’m available for coaching calls. I’m not going outside of that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a business to run because it would be completely out of control.
It’s the same thing when we’re thinking about speaking engagements to be quite honest. You can’t really build your brand successfully and leverage your academic credentials successfully if you’re trying to financially protect your future. If you don’t have boundaries.
And yes, I had to learn that because I wouldn’t be where I am with my two businesses if I didn’t. You have to take the emotion out of boundaries. These are the parameters and that’s it.
Jennifer: Now not only are those the parameters but like that’s how you make it work with your lifestyle: with being a Professor, with actually having two businesses. It wouldn’t work unless you kept those boundaries.
Sheena: Oh my God. Jennifer, that is so true. I am a single mom. I am a full Professor at a university. I run two businesses.
I have to have boundaries to make all of this work. Yeah. I mean it’s just so important.
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Your digital footprint or digital presence
Jennifer: Now we’ve talked a little bit about speaking engagements and how having that kind of online presence and being found by the media can help get more attention to your research.
What makes up your online presence?
Sheena: One thing that’s really important is to know when your name is mentioned anywhere on the internet.
Now they have paid tools where you can monitor when you’re mentioned. I don’t use any of those paid tools. I just use Google Alerts. All different versions of my name are in Google Alerts—Sheena Howard, Dr Sheena Howard, Sheena Howard PhD, like all different versions are in Google Alerts.
This is really important because sometimes the media will quote me in things that I didn’t even know they were quoting me in. Or, I didn’t know the article was out. But I get it immediately when my name is mentioned. This is important in having a digital footprint, a digital presence. To just even know what is out there about you because you need to be intentional about your digital space.
The other thing is your personal website.
I teach people you need to own your virtual real estate. Your stuff online is real estate. You literally can make money off of it. And you need to think about your online presence as literally the equity that you’re building in your house.
When you have your website, you should own your name. So SheenaCHoward.com, I should own that URL. DrSheenaHoward.com, I should own that URL.
If you don’t own your name right now in the virtual space, in terms of buying that URL which you can do for like $15 a year on like GoDaddy or something like that. You need to go and buy all those different versions of your name. That makes up your digital footprint as well, just owning your virtual real estate.
Your website should have good SEO [Search Engine Optimization]. When someone types in like “black comics,” I want my name to come up. It will, if anybody’s listening to this they type in “black comics,” something about me is going to come up on the 1st or 2nd page of Google Search results.
But also when someone types in my name, I want my website to come up because I’m controlling my brand to some extent. This is what I want people to know about me when they type in my name. Not some random video that I did 10 years ago.
Your website is definitely something that makes up your brand. And then everything that people are saying about you, like reviews: Google reviews, all of those public places where people can leave reviews about you, your business, your work makes up your digital footprint, your online presence.
Jennifer: I love that you talk about it like real estate. I speak with so many professors that have maybe been given space on their University website to create a page, or they use a page that has been given to them by Humanities Commons, or another organization. It’s different than owning your own space, than having complete control over a website and a domain that you own.
I love what you said about comparing it to owning real estate and really investing in having control over your own name. Thank you for sharing that.
Sheena: Yeah, for sure. It’s about ownership because it’s kind of like your website is hosted by wherever it’s hosted by. And obviously you don’t own that company, but you own it more than you own your Instagram page, or your Facebook page, or your or your Twitter page. Right? You can directly be in contact with people. You can track your traffic to your website. You can send them to your mailing list.
If something happens with any of these platforms you still can be in direct communication with the people that are your fans and followers and that kind of thing.
Jennifer: I love that because you’re really talking about people who are trying to make those kind of longer term connections, inviting people to their website.
A lot of the people that I work with have never really thought about the audiences for their website before. They’re just thinking of other academics, or other researchers at that point when they first reach me. So that’s really normal if you’ve never thought about it before. That’s normal.
However, your website will reach so many more people. And it does invite more people, and media, and other researchers of course. But also the public, to explore your work. Owning that real estate is not just inviting people to your research, it’s inviting people to learn more about you as a person and see how your work can help them. I really enjoyed that comparison to real estate. That’s great.
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Why you want a larger media presence for your work
Jennifer: You’ve created the Power Your Research program because you want to help academics have a larger media presence, to get real recognition for their work. Why should academics want that?
Sheena: There’s two reasons why I created Power Your Research. The 1st is because unfortunately a lot of people with PhDs are living paycheck to paycheck. Or, they’re not getting the income that they want to be getting from their universities. So you have people with PhDs who can’t even break into academe, because at this point getting a tenure track position is almost like making it to the NFL, if we’re being honest.
Then, we have people who are on tenure tracks, or who have tenure, who now all of a sudden they realize, “Oh my goodness, there is a pay ceiling to this once I get tenure, I got to go for Full.” And Full [Professor] is the highest promotion that you can get. You’re just not going to make any more money for the rest of your career because you’re a Full Professor. What a lot of people will do is they’ll go the administration route because they want to make more money, not necessarily because that’s what they want to do.
I created the Power Your Research program to empower people. To say, “Hey, look. You can make more money building your brand than any university or institution can ever pay you anyway.” If you have tenure you might as well do that because your work can leave an impact on people. You can reach more people. You can really do the things that you want your work to do.
If you’re not on a tenure track, and you’re one of these PhDs or people with master’s degrees that are not even in Higher Ed, you can leverage your academic credentials to make six figures and more.
That’s the 1st reason why I created the program: to empower people to own their academic credentials in their career.
The 2nd reason why I created Power Your Research is because with these free tools that we have out here, unfortunately, educators and academics are not the ones with the microphones reaching everybody. And they are the subject matter experts.
There are people who are very good at digital media, good at using these tools, who are not subject matter experts who have the microphone and are reaching millions of people.
I personally believe that society is better when the subject matter experts have the microphone. And have the visibility and media coverage to reach more people. Because they’ve done the academic and educational work. They should also be the ones out there on the forefront.
Those are the two reasons why I created Power Your Research for my academics and educators.
Jennifer: I love it! Oh that sounds amazing. I think there’s so many women who are listening right now that are like, “Oh, I need six figures. That sounds like the program for me.”
Can you tell people a little bit about what to expect from the program? Like who should reach out and actually book a call with you to talk about this.
Because more people should be in this program and get that expertise to actually communicate and get the money that they deserve.
Sheena: Yeah, so there are kind of two buckets of people in the program. There’s people who, have PhDs, some people have master’s degrees, who are not like working as faculty members. But they might have a small business that they just started and they’re trying to get lead generation and just trying to figure it out. Maybe they have a different full-time job, they’re trying to figure it out.
The other bucket of people are people who are on tenure track positions or who are tenured, who are the people that we just spoke about, where they’re like, “Hey, there’s a pay ceiling.” They’re feeling unfulfilled in Higher Ed. They’re looking for the next thing. They want to make more money. They’re living paycheck to paycheck, or not making the income that they want to make.
Basically anybody with academic credentials, I can teach you how to leverage those so that you can own your future, and protect your future, and build equity in your brand.
Being an academic expert in a documentary
Milestone Generations (2022) was released recently on HBO. It is a documentary that asks, “Where are the Black superheros?” exploring the history of Milestone Media hosted by Method Man.
Jennifer: You’ve done it for yourself. You really are an expert who’s been on all of the national outlets, and in documentaries, on TV shows.
What was it like being in Milestone Generations? I know you’ve been on other TV spots before, but that was the one that just came out and I watched it.
Sheena: Oh, thank you.
Yeah, that was that cool. It’s always awesome to kind of get recognition like that, in my opinion. Because I get to reach more people. I get to help more people.
It was amazing. I got to go to New York. I was on set. It was during COVID, so we had to do multiple COVID-19 tests. But it was amazing.
It was a big honor and, to be honest, I worked hard to be able to get positioning like that without spending money on a publicist. I don’t pay publicists.
I do this all on my own by just really honing in on the things that I teach academics to do around leveraging their brand. And I’m focused. I’m just focused.
Once you get the media coverage and visibility, and you’re consistent for a period of time, you don’t have to pitch yourself anymore because you already have the online presence. When someone types in “black comics” or whatever, something about me is gonna come up. And so I’ll be able to kind of get to the top of the list of experts that can talk about black comics, the comic space, that kind of thing.
Anybody can do that with their educational backgrounds. This is really what I want people to understand. Anybody can get to that place, just a period of time that you have to do a specific set of activities until you can kind of sit back and kind of enjoy the fruits of your labor.
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How much does it cost to hire a publicist?
Jennifer: You just mentioned something that I’d like to ask about. Because I think a bunch of people are maybe going to have this question.
Jennifer: Can you hire a publicist? And if so, how much does it cost? You teach people how to do it themselves, but hiring a publicist probably sounds more attractive to some people. So what does that actually look like? I think it’s really expensive, right?
Sheena: Hiring a publicist sounds more attractive because people actually have a misconception about what publicists do. I actually did a live video on this the other day.
“People think they’re going to hire a publicist, the publicist is going to do all the work for them. They’re going to put their content out there, they’re going to run their social medias, they’re going to get them media spots. That is not what a publicist is there for.”
You have to provide the publicist with the content. You need to come to the publicist with something for the publicist to put out into the world. A publicist doesn’t just work with you and then call up The New York Times and be like, “Hey, I got a client.” You have to be the publicist for things.
You have to work with the publicist for at least 3-6 months before you see any results because they have to build up to getting you that media coverage and visibility. But they also have to have something to build upon.
A publicist is like $3,000-$5,000 a month.
You’re not gonna see results for a while. You’ll probably get a couple of media spots. But you will have no idea what your brand is, who you’re trying to reach, or any of that.
I want to be clear that publicists are not scams or anything like what people might be thinking. Publicists are actually really good at their job, so they have to have something to work with.
I used a publicist one time. And I might use a publicist in the future. But there’s a very specific way you should go about this so that you’re not paying $3,000 to $5,000 a month. The 1st is to build your brand on your own. Have something for the publicist to build off of. So do the work.
The second is if there’s a high-end media outlet that you want to be on…Let’s take me for example. I was on The Breakfast Club, it’s a very high-end podcast known worldwide. You see politicians go on there all the time.
I did the work on that. I got in contact with Charlamagne tha God, who is the host, on my own. I got him to follow me on Twitter. Eventually, after about 6-8 months, I got the email address of the producer. I emailed the producer on my own. Then at that point, I hired a publicist to just go into the end zone and lead the rest of the way because that was high-end.
Instead of me having to pay $3,000 to $5,000 a month, I could pay a little bit less for a shorter period of time. Because I just wanted the publicist to really do that one thing. So, that’s a different way to go about getting a publicist. Save yourself some money.
But I mean for all the places I’ve been, I have not had a publicist with me—ABC, Good Morning America, Digital BBC, NPR—that was all me working working the systems that I teach.
Jennifer: Amazing! Well for everyone who’s listening, Power Your Research, is the program that’s going to teach you how to do that. You get to work with Dr. Sheena Howard and learn how to really control your own media. And reach out to people and actually make those connections yourself.
Dr. Howard, is there anything else you’d like to discuss before we wrap up?
Sheena: I want to say since I did mention the publicist that I worked with for a little bit, shout out to Sam Mattingly, the publicist that I did work with a few years ago. She was amazing, and believed in me, and believed in my mission, and believed in my message. But I came to her with things for her to use to promote my brand. I had been promoting my brand for years before I reached out to her for that limited period of time. Shout out to her.
Hopefully your listeners found this valuable. Hopefully there are some things in there they can take and implement right now. That is my goal: to empower all of my academics and educators.
Jennifer: Well thank you so much for coming on the show, Dr. Howard. Thank you so much!
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Bio for Sheena C. Howard, PhD
Sheena C. Howard, is a Professor of Communication. She is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and scholar. In 2014, Sheena became the first Black woman to win an Eisner Award for her first book, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. She is also the author of several critically acclaimed books and comics books on a range of topics. Sheena is a writer and image activist, with a passion for telling stories, through various mediums, that encourage audiences to consider narratives that are different than their own.
In 2014, Sheena published Black Queer Identity Matrix and Critical Articulations of Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. Sheena is the author/editor of the award-winning book, Encyclopedia of Black Comics and the cowriter of the comic book Superb, about a teenage superhero with Down Syndrome. In 2016, through her company Nerdworks, LLC, Sheena directed, produced and wrote the documentary Remixing Colorblind, which explores the ways the educational system shapes our perception of race and “others.”
Connect with Sheena on social media @DrSheenaHoward
Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and communications consultant. She founded The Academic Designer, LLC to help professors, researchers, and graduate students manage their online presence. Jennifer’s goal is to help people share their work with the world.
Check out her personal site at https://jennifervanalstyne
or learn more about the services she offers at https://theacademicdesigner.com