Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Hide and they will seek

Hide and they will seek

Sooner or later in most ASCL members' careers, the media will come knocking when the school or college least wants to let them in. Sara Gadzik offers some suggestions for dealing constructively with the media in the midst of a major incident.

Glenmoor School in Bournemouth would like to be known for its success as a high-achieving girls' school with a maths and computing specialism.

But for a week in November 2004, Anti-Bullying Week in fact, Glenmoor made the headlines as the school where headteacher and ASCL member Pam Orchard suspended 40 girls for bullying.

Most broadsheets focused on the fact that the school took decisive action and that the head and governing body had the backing of the local authority and most of the parents.

However, the newspapers could easily have run articles portraying the school as out of control and in chaos and the head as helpless in the face of mob rule.

Even the tabloids, once they got past the headline, gave equal space to the school's side of the story, including extensive quotes from the head.

In this case, what went right? It may have been luck or the way the wind was blowing, but how a school reacts when the media come calling can have a major impact on how the story turns out.

Pam remembers, "When it happened, a few parents weren't happy with the exclusion and contacted the local paper to complain.

"It became local front page news and then, as it was Anti-Bullying Week, the national media interest became intense. The school was besieged by television reporters and journalists.

"I had done quite a bit of media training so I knew what to expect and how to react but it was very daunting for some of the staff."

Once an incident becomes public knowledge - whether it be a fire, an accident involving students, or an allegation against staff - it can almost instantly take on a life of its own and schools will normally have very little time to react.

Be prepared

It is impossible to prepare for every scenario, but having a crisis communication strategy in place for dealing with the media, setting out protocols and immediate actions to take, can help.

It is only natural in the face of incessant phone calls and television cameras at the gates to want to give in to the temptation to bolt the door and say as little as possible.

However, school and college leaders have a much better chance of influencing a story, or at least having their side heard, if they are as forthcoming as they can be.

For example, one college which was faced with an assault on one of its staff members, who was working late one night inside one of the buildings, took the unnerving step of issuing a notice to the media first thing in the morning before a police report went out.

Later that day, the spokesperson made a statement to local media and took questions, giving as many facts as possible without naming the victim and stressing that the college was doing so in the interest of the safety of the surrounding community. In that case the strategy paid off and the coverage was neutral to positive toward the college.

News hounds

Reporters are doing their job. They are trained at sniffing out news stories and many of them are very good at it.

For the most part they are also good as sensing when they are not being told the truth, and they will corroborate facts and check details until they uncover the holes in a story.

In the long-run, it usually pays to be honest and give as much information as possible without compromising those involved.

Journalists sent by their editors in search of a story won't want to go back empty handed. If they can't get the scoop from an official source, there is a good chance their next contact will be with staff, parents or the woman who lives down the street - anyone who can provide a perspective.

Fundamental to having a co-ordinated media strategy is agreeing a designated senior spokesperson and an alternate for those instances when the first contact is not available.

This will be the person who speaks on behalf of the institution, and staff and students will need to be told that all media enquiries should be directed to this person. This ensures that the messages going out are consistent, accurate and up-to-date.

This person could, but does not have to be, the head or principal; it should be someone who is readily available to deal with media requests and interviews.

When media activity is intense, particularly when television crews are camped outside, it can be helpful to initiate regular, scheduled updates with reporters, for example by holding a news briefing at 11am and 4pm each day.

Even if there is nothing new to report, reporters will appreciate that they have the latest information. It also is a more effective use of time than reacting to individual media requests.

In addition to the main spokesperson, making a governor and parent representative available to offer comments can help to add perspective to a story.

Especially if they are on deadline, reporters will appreciate having to do less running around. And the easier it is for them to get comments, the less likely it is that they will go to other sources to find the answers.

Never "no comment"

When responding to the media, it is fine to have a script and stick to it. However, at all costs try to avoid saying "no comment". It is almost impossible to say those two words without sounding as if there is something to hide, and many people have tried.

If there have been mistakes or errors of judgement, it is generally better to own up to them early on, rather than having to back track after being caught out. Once an error is in the open, the emphasis can be on what steps are being taken to resolve the issue.

Finally, while coping with the full glare of the media and at the same time dealing with the incident at hand, it is easy to forget that the rest of the staff may not be fully aware of what is happening. Rumours start when there are no facts to fill the void. A good crisis communications plan will build in mechanisms to keep staff and students informed as well.

There is, of course, no guarantee that having a strategy, or being forthcoming and honest where the media is concerned, will work in the best interests of the school. Some journalists and some media outlets are less scrupulous than others, and the reality is that sex, violence and bad behaviour sell.

It is a foregone conclusion that every school leader will at some point be at the receiving end of what may be perceived to be unfair treatment by the media.

That's where cultivating a good relationship with the media early on, especially the regionals, can help - get to know who the local radio, television and newspapers reporters are, invite them to visit the school or college, be proactive with good news stories, and be available to give comments on national issues.

Forging relationships can make it less likely that journalists will pursue a witch hunt when things go wrong.

If a school or college can get 10 positive stories in the media before the negative one hits, the bad news stories are likely to be less painful and of shorter duration.

Sara Gadzik is ASCL's communications director.

Dealing with media

ASCL is offering a one-day course Dealing with the Media on 30 March in Kenilworth.

Course presenters John Dunford and Sara Gadzik will cover preparing for television and radio interviews, writing press releases and building constructive relationships with the media. There will be hands-on practice sessions.

The course will be relevant to senior leaders or anyone with responsibility for dealing with the media.

For details visit www.ascl.org.uk or call the MAPS Office on 0116 299 1122.

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