Tips for schools dealing with the media

05 May 2008

The following are my notes for a session given at the NAHT national conference in an event sponsored by Teachers' TV.

They are designed as an introduction to some of the issues that need to be considered by head teachers when responding to enquiries from the media.

Title: Dealing With The Media.

Sub-title: the risks and advantages of being involved

Because – be up front with you - there are BOTH risks and gains.

But I believe, providing you are aware of the risks, and are prepared for them, they are more than outweighed by the gains.

  1. First point: the media debate has become the main forum for policy debate, whether we like it or not (and I don’t always);
  2. So it’s vital that experts and practitioners –people like you – are involved in that media debate. Poorer without you.
  3. I understand the wariness based on a fear of being misrepresented, either unintentionally or wilfully. 
  4. But if you stay out, you leave the floor to the politicians and polemicists who usually know less than you, the professionals.

Before Agreeing To Coverage

Before any dealings with the media, it is vital to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the benefits/risks to the school, the pupils, the staff?
  • What is my key message?
  • What is my target audience?
  • What is the context of the story (government or council announcement, latest statistics etc)?
  • How long will the finished report be? When and where will it appear?
  • Is it likely to provoke further media interest?

Filming In Schools

Before agreeing to filming/photography in the school, consider the following:

  • Have you got parental permission for all students involved?
  • How much access will you allow: to the whole school? selected classes?
  • Who will do interviews: staff? pupils? parents?
  • What might be in the background of any filming or interviews?
  • Is there anything unusual going on in the school on this day: mufti day? Rag week? Rock band rehearsals? Could any of these give a false impression?

Crisis Situations

Ok. So far, I have dealt with day-to-day media coverage. Opportunities for heads to influence the message and to get over their point of view: be it on funding, new qualifications, assessment, league tables or whatever is the issue of the day.

But what happens when you, or your school, is not just an illustration but IS the story?

How should you react then?

Can you put up the shutters? Should you say ‘no comment’?

Will you make it worse by answering questions?

Difficult issues. No hard and fast answers. Usually no time to think about it.

This is where it can get scary and where the wrong handling of the media makes the situation worse.

What to do when bad news happens?

  • Do not sit tight and hope it will go away! (No shouting ‘no comment’ as you roar out of the gates)
  • Do not tell any lies or anything you cannot later substantiate.
  • Release a holding statement as soon as possible – even if it only promises a response shortly (and cups of tea for waiting reporters/ crew!)
  • Co-ordinate all media responses with any other relevant bodies.
  • Don’t give impromptu doorstep interviews or news conferences.
  • Instead think carefully about who will do interviews, where and when.
  • Consider pool arrangements for interviews and pictures: think locations: not where kids can hang out windows and join in!

Media Interviews

  • What is my key message?
  • What is the news agenda for the interview?
  • Am I the only ‘voice’ or will there be others?
  • Who are the target audience?
  • Avoid professional jargon: talk to the public not your peers.
  • Assume everything you say could be used. If you want to go off the record, be very clear about this. 

Broadcast Interviews

  • Is it live, ‘as live’ or pre-recorded?
  • Is it a sound bite or full-length interview?
  • Engage with the question but do not lose your direction.
  • Don’t read from notes but be conversational: viewers/ listeners are individuals not a crowd. Over-rehearsed sounds stilted.
  • In pre-recorded interviews don’t be afraid to ask to re-do questions.
  • Avoid lists (‘firstly…secondly’ etc) and complex metaphors.
  • No more than one statistic per answer. Avoid sub-clauses
  • Try to inject light and shade in your voice. For emphasis use a pause. Don’t raise voice or bang the table.

Television Interviews

  • Take care with location: no distractions, appropriate background.
  • Sit comfortably: don’t lean back or forward but not ramrod straight.
  • Appearance: avoid distracting jewellery, badges, half-mast ties etc.
  • Use your hands but keep them low (and don’t knock microphone).
  •  For clips: use ‘self-contained’ answers that do not begin with ‘yes/no’.
  • Use trigger phrase to highlight your main point e.g. ‘The most important thing is…’ or ‘This matters because…’ 

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