If your school hit the headlines, how would you cope? Education Bradford’s press and communications officer Paul Parker has some tips.

There probably isn’t a day that goes go by without a child protection story in the press and such reports often give a negative view of how professionals have handled a case.

If you were asked by a fellow train traveller to list key aspects of your line of work, then trust would be high on the list. Over the years, you will have built up trust with other professionals from partner organisations, such as the police and social services and health. The problem arises when you find yourself suddenly and unceremoniously thrust into uncharted waters with professionals in completely different arenas – such as the media. It is likely this is an area where you have not built up a series of long-term professional relationships because you have felt you haven’t needed to. Then the phone rings and a reporter is on the other end of the line, demanding a quote about something or a response to an item in the news, or, worst of all, details of a case you are working on.

If the same fellow train passenger asked you to list the professionals you would have most difficulty dealing with, then journalists would more than likely be in the top 10. In national surveys they rank with politicians, actors, stockbrokers and lawyers as among the most untrustworthy professionals.

It’s no surprise that journalists are very demanding, have strict deadlines to keep and are often difficult to deal with – especially when they have got their teeth into a big story.

However, they can also be useful when there is a positive story to tell. We forget the positive stories that TV or radio programmes, news websites or newspapers run.

That is why it is helpful to have someone who has a knowledge of the way the media works to bridge the gap between a school or education/social work professional and journalists. They will usually have worked with journalists and understand where they are ‘coming from’ with a story. It helps to have someone around with a healthy suspicion and to know how important it is to ask questions such as: ‘Why do you really want to know?’, ‘What is this story going to be about?’, ‘What is the bigger picture?’

What makes a good story?

  • A good start is when something is controversial. The media makes the most of stories of child abuse and enjoys exposing paedophiles, for example. Controversy also attracts attention from the people in both camps and also observers on the sidelines.
  • Almost everyone wants to know about disasters: why it happened, who was involved, who is to blame, etc.
  • Viewers, listeners and readers can identify with stories that could just as easily have happened to them. They also bring out various emotions.
  • Every once in a while, journalists pick up a story and run with it. The result is a series of themed stories (often created solely by the media), which tend to gain more coverage than they ordinarily would. 
  • Anything that makes us afraid for our safety is grist to the mill with crime and health, common subjects of concern.

I worked in the media and jumped over the fence into communications work a few years ago. It helps an organisation like Education Bradford to have someone like me to deal with journalists on its behalf. That is why I would suggest you seriously consider increasing your own knowledge of how to deal with the media and also improve your professional relationship with someone with a media background who can help you when times get tough with the media.

A council or public body press office or communications unit can be invaluable when a media crisis hits. However, isn’t it better, before a crisis emerges, to already have a professional relationship with people within the press office/communications unit? Just as in your core work you will have developed trustworthy professional relationships with partner organisations, it will help to develop the same sort of professional relationships with people who are media aware.

You may be new to the job, or a seasoned hand, but it is unlikely, if you are reading this as a child protection professional, that you will also be able to handle a major media crisis or even a minor one involving your area of work. Just as much as the media-aware professional should allow you to take the decisions needed to sort out a child abuse mess, so you should allow the media-aware professionals to do their work in sorting out a media mess.

If you do not bother to develop such professional relationships, you may well regret it. If you do not have access to a media-aware professional, a press office or a communications unit, here are some tips on how best to be interviewed by a journalist.

Five top tips for being interviewed by a journalist

  • Most important of all – always prepare. Write down some bullet points in advance, as you might miss something out under the pressure of being interviewed.
  • Do not be afraid of saying, ‘I’m sorry, I am not able to discuss that’ to a controversial question or one outside your area of work. It is better than snapping: ‘No comment’.
  • When you have more experience you might say: ‘I’m sorry, I am not able to discuss that, but what I can say is…’ and then outline something positive.
  • If you are not clear about what an interviewer means by their questions, don’t be afraid to ask: ‘What do you mean by that?’ It is better to do that than give an inappropriate answer.
  • Make sure what you say is easily understood.
  • Don’t use initials because people inside and outside education will not always understand them. Steer clear of jargon or ‘shorthand’ phrases that only a limited number of people will understand.