Schools’ relationships with the media are increasingly important. Brian Rossiter, headteacher of Valley School, Worksop, North Nottinghamshire describes his approach
Most schools have a love-hate relationship with the local media, based on its ability to put them on a pedestal one day and kick them into the gutter the next. We all want our schools to be seen in a positive light. Establishing a good relationship with the local paper or radio station, if carefully managed, is the way to promote the positive aspects of our institutions.
I try to ensure that media organisations believe that they can ‘get to me’ for quotes, photos and background. This works well on most occasions. It is particularly useful when they follow up tragic horror stories involving young people in the national press. I have often been asked about the school’s role in fire safety, water safety, road safety… education. The view that schools can solve all society’s problems is often put to me and I respond with what I believe to be a ‘reality check’. This makes its way to the paper or on to a radio programme and when edited often provides, in my view, a more measured response to some terrible national tragedy.
Our community is concerned about such national stories. I want them to be reassured that we are as supportive as we can be to their children. This access is also, in my opinion, helpful in the promotion of the school in the community. We are seen to be taking part in a debate and seen to have more depth than being simply an education establishment that takes care of their children.
In articles for Secondary Headship in October and November 2005 I wrote about our massive district-wide PFI project. Management of the messages into and across the area has been vital. The local authority has worked tirelessly in the background to ensure that official briefings and stories get printed.
I too have been keeping the local media up to date with developments. The outcome has been a series of radio interviews along with quite extensive positive newspaper coverage. We have been able to provide photo opportunities and architects’ impressions of the new campuses that support their content. One of the key objectives of the project has been to raise aspirations in the community. This promotion of the project, endorsed by the local press through articles and editorials, plugs our strapline: ‘Regeneration through Education’. This consistent message is then picked up by the community.
Most of us email or fax press releases covering sports fixtures, drama events and exam successes. I have sometimes found the local press to be a little lazy and a carefully crafted and emailed press release often ends up being copied and pasted onto page 2, 5, 7 or 9 with little change. I always put a sub-heading on the release. This is occasionally used but its main purpose is to attract the news desk to the story.
As part of the workforce reform agenda we are placing the responsibility for media links with a member of our support team. This will remove an extra burden from a teacher while giving us a colleague able to devote a proportion of their core hours to an important task.
There have been occasions when I have been approached by the press following up a story where I have judged that the net effect of publicity for a student could have been extremely damaging. In these circumstances I have expressed my concerns to an editor directly and hoped that he or she would either not run the story or if he did then to be extremely sensitive to the possible outcomes from his article. This form of management of the issue is not to force the press to take a line, more an attempt at protecting students. To the local paper’s credit our relationship is such that they have rarely followed up such stories and when they have done so have attempted to write them in such a way that minimal ‘damage’ is caused.
There are more and more parents who seek to use the media to threaten, cajole, bully and harass schools. Often this is a result of the school not responding in the parents’ eyes as it should. When this happens, the throwaway line at the end of the meeting or letter of complaint is along the lines of: ‘You obviously are not interested in my complaint/concern/what I have to say and unless you do as I ask/demand I will go to the newspaper/radio/TV/solicitor/MP.’ In my early days as a head (I’m now in my eighth year) I was concerned but resistant to this form of threat. Today I am just resistant.
We always act on the issues surrounding cases and are always prepared to justify our actions. If we have made mistakes I always admit this to parents as we seek to find ways forward. Sometimes we cannot respond in the way that people want us to respond. And their response? Today the use of email and the ‘cc’ button means that more parents are putting out emails to anyone they can find an address for, whereas in the past they were more selective.
A recent issue we have been dealing with came about as a result of a bitter dispute in the community. The parents had no joy with other agencies and apparently tried to use the school as a weapon against the other families/children. They alleged massive bullying and demanded expulsion of an alleged bully (on the other side of the community dispute). After extensive investigation we found no evidence to take action against other students and worked to support the student whose parents had complained. We refused to get involved with the wider issues and concentrated on providing a safe environment for their son to be educated in.
This was not acceptable to the parents and they proceeded to email their inaccurate version of events to all and sundry both locally and nationally. Politicians at the highest level, the full range of media outlets and local authority officials were on the email list. I sense we are not alone as a school in having to deal with this form of ‘electronic back-wash’. As well as the inevitable phone call from County Hall came one from the local paper. I have a good relationship with the news team and as such had an ‘off-the-record’ discussion with them. I could not give them many details about the student involved. I could, however, outline my understanding of the background to the chain of events the press were now becoming involved in.
This type of discussion should only be considered if you have a known and good relationship with the paper/radio. It is fraught with difficulties but it allows you to give some information that will not be used and gives the reporter a more rounded view of any issues they are investigating. Always offer the opportunity for an ‘on-the-record’ comment as part of the conversation. Again, this is seen as your being helpful and allows you to put some of the key points that you wish to get to the wider public. But always avoid being drawn into commenting personally about the complainants or source of the issue being reported on. When ‘menaced’, know in advance what you want to say, say it, and if pressed say it again. The prime minister has yet to call on this one.
Taken by surprise
Sometimes issues come to you out of the blue.
I have over the past few years had to deal with the deaths of several students as a result of accidents. These are hugely traumatic not only for the families concerned but also for the school community. In this context our relationship with newspapers and local radio are such that I can work with the media to meet their needs while protecting the families and the school. We have produced carefully crafted statements that reflect the feelings of the different parts of the school community and express our condolences to the family. We always volunteer ‘positive’ information such as the student representing the school at football or that they played in a school orchestra/rock band.
This information is easily available to the press from other sources and so the ‘confidentiality’ issue is, in my view, irrelevant. More detailed personal information is, however, off-limits. We are always aware of the effect of a poorly thought-out quote on the grieving families of the student concerned.
… and finally:
I have found to my horror that one week my local paper will be praising the work of our school and the next week they treat us as if we are worse than ‘St Trinians’ (in an urban, ex-mining town setting). The former is read, the latter forms the basis of weeks of readers’ letters from people with scores to settle going back generations. We live in an environment where the glass is sometimes half empty. My glass is half full. I attempt to retain some control of the media in relation to Valley School. My first task on Friday morning is to read the local paper – it is only then that I can be sure that we have got it right. For that week anyway!
- get to know the local radio/newspaper, editor or news-desk editors
- have a single person in school charged with communicating positive information stories to the media
- use a standard format for your press releases including contact details and whether photos can be taken or supplied
- make the first sentence snappy, encapsulating the essence of the information to follow
- if your local authority has a press or similar office – work with them to prepare a statement
- use generalities – counter issues raised by explaining how you would address a similar situation should it arise in school
- state clearly that what you are about to say is ‘off-the-record’ before you give any type of background to the media
- have a single point of contact for information from school when the unexpected arises
- make that point of contact the headteacher if at all possible
- prepare a written statement to support any comment you make
- be aware of the wider effects of your comments on those either directly or indirectly involved
- keep the school teaching AND support teams informed of the issue.
- ignore the power of the picture
- assume they will use the release
- ignore requests for comment – just do so when it is convenient to you
- say ‘no comment’
- give personal information about students to the media
- take part in off-the-record conversations with unknown media organisations
- give the media anything that could be used by the ‘complainants’, on- or off-record
- hope the media will go away if you say nothing – they won’t
- relax and give off-the-cuff remarks
- engage in discussions concerning speculation that reporters may put to you.