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Working with the Media

Module by: Betty Monk. E-mail the author

Summary: The goals of this unit are (1) to encourage school leaders to develop positive relationships with members of the print, audio, and visual media as part of building a positive communications program for their educational organizations, and (2) to familiarize leaders with tools they may use to communicate effectively with the media and public.

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Note:

This module has been peer-reviewed, accepted, and sanctioned by the National Council of the Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) as a scholarly contribution to the knowledge base in educational administration.

“I keep six honest serving men/They taught me all I knew/ Their names are What and Why and When/And How and Where and Who.”

—Rudyard Kipling

Objectives

  • To develop a positive philosophy about relationships with the media.
  • To identify skills a proactive practitioner needs in dealing with the media.
  • To understand concepts associated with preparing messages for a variety of publics through a variety of media.
  • To provide practice in building skills through a wide variety of public-relations assignments.

Introduction

In Communicating with the Public: A Guide for School Leaders (1999), Ann Meek makes the point that communication from the schools has traditionally been defined in terms of crisis: failing students, inappropriate employee or student behavior, unsafe buildings, financial shortfalls. In the face of crisis, the public is left with little choice but to react (p. viii). Given profound changes in society, increasing expectations for schools, and intense competition for resources, public support for schools cannot be taken for granted. Schools leaders must be proactive in building support for their institutions through a positive communications program. Meek suggests that wise school leaders use a strategy recommended by Lyndon Johnson—“Make friends before we [you] need them” (p. 2).

Positive communication with the media about the many exciting and terrific things that are happening in a school or district will not happen by chance. Unfortunately print, audio, and visual media reporters do not spend their time looking for positive educational stories that merit coverage. Reporters are often pressed for time and overworked and like the public, when their primary interaction with school officials is based in crisis, they tend to focus on the unusual, sensational or controversial.

Key to positive news coverage for a school or district is a leader who builds relationships with reporters and who gives these reporters newsworthy stories in formats that are easy for them to understand and use. The leader’s return on this investment of time and effort is heightened visibility for the schools, its programs, and students. The media have the power to take the school’s message to more people than educators can on their own. Remembering that the opinions held by many people are based on what they see or hear in the media, savvy leaders understand that positive news coverage builds support for the school.

Identifying Media Contacts

An important first step in developing a positive communications program with the media is having an up-to-date list of media contacts. A wonderful story is lost when it is sent to the wrong address, to a reporter who no longer works for the newspaper or station, or to a media outlet that has changed names or owners. When starting from scratch, a listing of newspapers and magazines, radio stations by call letters, and television stations by call letters may be found in area telephone directories. The local Chamber of Commerce may also be available to provide a listing of print, audio, and visual media sources. Professional associations such as the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) or the state affiliate of such organization may be able to supply information about media sources.

The next step in identifying media contacts is to call the identified newspapers and magazines, radio stations, and television stations in order to find out who covers the “education beat.” Use these contact calls to create a listing of the following information for each reporter:

  • Name of the contact person (the reporter)
  • Position of the individual (reporter, editor, publisher)
  • Name of the newspaper/magazine/radio station/television station
  • Address of newspaper/magazine/radio station/television station
  • Address of contact person
  • Email address of contact person
  • Telephone number for contact person
  • Fax number for contact person
  • Preference for receiving releases (mail, email, telephone, fax)
  • Publication day or newscast times
  • Deadlines

Due to frequent turnover in the media (especially for reporters), the media contacts list should be updated every six months.

Building Relationships with Reporters

Jim Burgett in What Every Superintendent Principal Needs to Know: School Leadership for the Real World (2003) states the following about communicating with the media:

“Never argue with someone who buys their ink by the barrel.” I’ve heard that one a thousand times. I have no idea if anyone in your town buys ink by the barrel…The point is: Don’t get the mediafolk mad at you. They have the power to retaliate big time! Frankly, I can’t imagine any paper or radio station not wanting to have a positive relationship with the local school system since we provide them lots of information that keeps them in business. On the other hand, I do know of some newspapers that are nasty to schools and seem to like it that way. The best advice when working with the media is the same I’d give about any type of effective communication: be honest, be fair, and be timely. If you treat other forms of communication this way, the media shouldn’t be any different. (p. 90)

Establishing a personal relationship with key members of the media is important for getting positive news coverage. Building a relationship with a reporter can begin by contacting a reporter and scheduling an appointment with him/her at the school. This visit can be used as means of getting to know each other, as a time for sharing key information about the school/district, and as a time for learning about the interests of the reporter. Additionally, information about deadlines and formats for communicating with each other can be established. Offer to spend time with the reporter whenever he/she is seeking information.

Tips for working with reporters and for building good relationships include the following:

  • Ask for the reporter’s name and media outlet when responding to telephone calls. Ask if you are being taped over the telephone. It is acceptable to ask the reporter about the type and angle of the story he/she is preparing and when it will be published or aired. If possible schedule a face-to-face interview.
  • No matter how casual the setting, assume all conversations with reporters are on the record—this includes casual remarks. Just because the reporter does not have a tape recorder or notebook does not mean that comments will not be used.
  • Never lie—always be honest. Your credibility can be permanently damaged and trust will be broken with the public and media is you are dishonest.
  • Respect reporters’ deadlines—return telephone calls promptly. Often a reporter needs a response in a matter of minutes, not hours or days.
  • Know your facts. If you are not prepared to talk on the spot, tell the reporter you will call him/her back and follow through on that promise. If you do not know an answer to a question, say so. When you don’t know or are unsure, offer to find an answer or to refer the reporter to an appropriate spokesperson. Avoid “no comment” answers. “No comment” answers suggest that you are hiding answers or evading questions.
  • Avoid jargon, educationese, and acronyms. Some reporters know little to nothing about the subject they are investigating, others may know a great deal. Explain what you mean accurately in simple language and suggest what you believe are the important points. Be concise and get to the point.
  • Know what is public information and what is not. If you have any doubt, check with the school attorney or supervisor before releasing information.
  • Don’t expect to see a story before it is published or aired. Offer to review comments for accuracy or clarification or ask the reporter to repeat key points. Let the reporter know how to be in touch with you if he/she has further questions.
  • Thank reporters for the coverage they have provided for your school or district. Let them know they are appreciated.

Tools for Communicating With and Through the Media

In their ASCD Advocacy Guide (2006), the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development note that “working with the media is an opportunity to spread your message beyond your usual network. You can communicate through the media in a number of ways, some of which you will be able to control, but many that will put your message at the mercy of others” (p.16). The following are among the communication tools identified by ASCD as vehicles for communicating with a variety of media:

  • New releases
  • Media advisories
  • Information packets and fact sheets
  • News conferences
  • Individual briefings with reporters or editors
  • Op-ed articles and letters to the editor
  • Radio and television news appearances
  • The Internet

Preparing News Releases

One of the best ways to communicate with the media is through news releases. A well-written news release serves the dual purpose of (1) informing the media about upcoming events or important work that merit news coverage and (2) identifies you as a reliable source for learning about what is going on in the school or district. Sending regular new releases about newsworthy stories is one strategy for building relationships with the media.

Investing time in the preparation of a news release increases the probably that the recipient of the press release will follow up and provide coverage. Rambling notes or poorly prepared releases are more likely to be trashed than reported.

In Communication: A Practical Guide to School and Community Relations (1996), Dolan, in addition to emphasizing the need for simplicity, brevity, and clarity, offers the following ten standards for preparing one-page news releases:

  • Type the manuscript, double-spaced, leaving two inches of space at the top of the page and adequate margins along the sides and bottom of the page.
  • Stories should be factual; avoid editorializing.
  • Organize facts with the five Ws (who, what where, why, and when) in the first paragraph; the least important information should be in the last paragraph.
  • Be accurate with facts, and check spelling.
  • Use personal titles Mr., Mrs. Miss, or Ms. with last names alone; do not use them with full names.
  • Spell out numbers from one to nine; use numerals from 10 and above.
  • Limit paragraphs to about five lines each.
  • Avoid wordiness.
  • Avoid jargon.
  • Check for the correct use of abbreviations. (p. 269)

The name and telephone number of a contact person, the date, and the phrase, “For Immediate Release” should appear at the top of the document. The news release should also have a headline (centered in bold capital letters) that identifies what the news release is about. A section at the bottom of the news release may list photographic opportunities or story ideas. Conclude the news release with a centered ending symbol(s). Conventionally used ending symbols are ### or -30-.

Timeliness is essential when sending news releases to the media. If the release is sent too early, it may be forgotten; if sent too late, the release may be ignored. Knowing about deadlines for the print media and broadcast timelines are essential. If the release announces an event you want reporters to attend, it should arrive in the news room three to five days in advance of the event. Establishing guidelines and format (email, fax, or regular mail) for sending news releases is an important strategy in building relationships with reporters.

Sending Media Advisories

Media advisories or alerts are very brief announcements of upcoming events—often a news conference—that give the date, time, and place of the event with a few additional words to capture interest. The purpose of the advisory/alert is to let media representatives know that an event or activity is about to take place. The ASCD Advocacy Guide notes that a media alert, although similar in style to a news release, is limited to a bulleted list of the important five Ws. These advisories do not provide the details of the story, just advance notice. Email, the fax, and regular mail are appropriate mediums for distributing media alerts. The advisory should include contact information so reporters or editors can follow-up with the sender of the notice.

Writing an Op-Ed Article or Letter to the Editor

Writing opinion articles or letters to the editor are effective ways of voicing opinions or educating the public about critical or controversial issues facing the school or district. These communication formats can be used to correct or interpret facts in response to inaccurate or biased articles, to praise or criticize an article or editorial, or simply to provide an opinion on a current issue. An important caution related to writing Op-Ed pieces or letters to the editor is to never represent yourself as the spokesperson for your organization unless you have been given that designation.

Unlike providing an interview to a reporter for a story he is writing, op-ends and letters to the editor are stand-alone pieces that focus on your point of view. Of the two, an op-ed carries the prestige of placement opposite the editorial page and includes a byline. However, letters to the editor, if written well on a carefully chosen and focused topic, are often easier to get published than an op-ed piece. (ASCD, 2006, p.19).

Tips on Writing Op-Ed Pieces

The purpose of an Op-Ed piece is to persuade readers to agree with your viewpoint. An Op-Ed piece combines the timeliness of a news story with a personal voice and is often published by the newspaper to balance the views of editorials and columns. Generally, Op-Ed authors are recognized as experts on the topic about which they are writing. Unlike, a letter to the editor, Op-Ed pieces are not always written in response to specific events or news stories and, as opinion pieces, they may address broader topics.

In The ABCs of Op-Ed Writing, the DeWitt Wallace Center Op-Ed Resource of the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University provides the following advice on writing Op-Ed pieces based on input from editors across the United States:

  • When deciding on your topic, narrow your scope to something that pertains to the readership of that paper. Do not write about oil rights in Alaska if you are sending your op-ed to Tennessee.
  • Make your argument accessible to a general audience, not just an academic one.
  • Make your point early on and make sure it is clear. The first sentence should reveal exactly what you intend to write about.
  • Don't just attack other groups; make your own point about an issue.
  • Bring in local connection to a national issue if possible.
  • Demonstrate the standing that you have regarding the issue. People will be convinced of your dedication if you show them where you are coming from.
  • Avoid writing about tired subjects.
  • Know something about the paper you are sending your piece to and the type of pieces they print and adjust accordingly.
  • Do not use profane language or commit libel.
  • Check the newspaper's guidelines for their rules regarding op-eds. Some papers will only print your op-ed if it has not been sent to another paper.

In Op-Ed pieces, you should support your position with specific details. However, it is important to remember that the Op-Ed is not a research article so it should be readable and engaging.

Tips on Writing an Effective Letter to the Editor

Before writing a letter to the editor, it is advisable to read the newspaper carefully to learn about format and the name of the editor you are addressing. Tips for writing effective letters to the editor include the following:

  • Be timely—capitalize on recent news and events. Write within 24 hours of a story if possible.
  • Keep the letter short, simple and focused—stick to a single subject since papers often print only a few paragraphs. Avoid jargon and technical terms.
  • Think locally—demonstrate how the issue affects people locally.
  • Sign your letter—include your name, address, and telephone number. The newspaper may need to contact you and they will not print your telephone number or street address.
  • Follow-up—if the newspaper does not contact you, contact the paper. Ask if the newspaper plans on printing your letter or if they have feedback for you.
  • Don’t be discouraged—write often and consider your letters to be a way of educating the editorial staff about important issues for the school.

Preparing for a Media Appearance

The following interview tips are suggested in material prepared by the National Academy of Engineering and may be found at the following websites:

http://www.nae.edu/NAE/pubundcom.nsf/weblinks/AEGR-5L7M3Q?OpenDocument

http://www.nae.edu/NAE/pubundcom.nsf/weblinks/AEGR-5L7M9B?OpenDocument

Working with the Media: Preparing for a Non-Taped Interview

Step One-The Reporter Calls You

  • When a reporter contacts you for an interview, you need not assume you must give the interview immediately. However, it is important to get back to them as soon as you have time and are able to prepare. Otherwise they may go elsewhere for their information. Ask about the reporter's deadline, which is often the same day. (If possible, set up a meeting with the reporter; in-person interviews can help ensure good communication.)
  • During this first contact, get some general information from the reporter. Ask about the subject and the angle of the story, as well as how your information might contribute. If you don't already know, ask where and when the interview will appear so that you can find the final product.
  • Be friendly with the reporter, and politely get on a first-name basis.

Step Two-Getting Prepared

  • Prepare a short list of the main points you'd like to give, otherwise known as talking points. Be concise, as a few sentences are often all the reporter will be able to use in a soundbite or quote. Note that you should not memorize the talking points for the interview, rather be familiar with them such that your point will come across in a relaxed way.
  • To get an idea of the goals of the reporter, see what's considered newsworthy.
  • Go to a quiet room without distractions for the interview.

During the Interview

  • When a question is asked, take a moment to collect your thoughts. There's no need to rush with an answer. If the question has multiple parts, break them down and answer each issue individually.
  • Keep answers simple. This helps the reporter, as most media outlets want reports that are understandable by a junior high school audience. Avoid jargon and acronyms.
  • Remember, the public is the real audience. If there is a key message you'd like to convey, repeat it to demonstrate its importance. You can also offer to clarify any points to ensure that they have been communicated effectively.
  • A technique for answering questions is to think of them as topic areas. Few journalists are likely to be an expert in the story's area. By speaking on the content area of the question rather than on the exact question itself, you can enrich the content of the interview.
  • You don't need to fill pauses in the conversation, unless there is a specific point you'd like to make.
  • It usually best to stay away from speculation, and talk about what you know.
  • If you don't know the answer, just say so, and you can then bring up one of the points you wanted to make. You can also offer to look up the information after the interview and call the reporter back.
  • If there is a question you are uncomfortable with, keep in mind it is not necessary to answer every question. If you don't want to answer the question, saying "no comment" is considered to be hostile. It's best to simply acknowledge the question and explain why you can't answer.
  • If the interview is over the phone, you might find that standing up during the conversation is useful to stay focused and keep your voice strong.

Working with the Media: Tips for Live or Taped InterviewsPreparing for a Life or Taped Interview

  • Arrive early.
  • Before the interview begins, be sure to ask whether the interview will be live, live-to-tape, or taped.
  • Discuss with the reporter the kind of questions he or she will ask. This is a common practice. If the interview is live, ask if there will be callers with questions.
  • The reporter or audio technician may ask for an audio check before the interview. During the check, speak at your normal volume.
  • Make sure you are seated comfortably in a chair that does not swivel. For a TV interview, position yourself upright on the seat. If you are wearing a jacket, sitting on the edge of the back of your jacket helps to keep your jacket from riding up around your neck. If you are standing, put one foot slightly ahead of the other to help maintain good balance.
  • What to wear to a TV interview: In general, conservative wear is best. Clothing colors should be neutral though not very dark, and if patterns are worn they should be very subtle. Shoes should be dark, and knee-length dark socks should be worn with pants. Distracting or shiny jewelry should be avoided, as well as jewelry that you might adjust during the interview. Wearing make-up is recommended for men, especially if it is offered, and especially powder for shiny skin. Short skirts are not recommended for women. Women's make-up should be subtle, and women who don't wear make-up may want to wear lipstick and possibly powder for shiny skin.

During the Interview

  • Always assume the microphone is on.
  • Maintain eye contact with the reporter if he/she is present. If the interview is for television and the reporter is not present, ask whether you should look towards the camera or at someone standing off camera.
  • During a taped interview, the length of answer should be 7 to 12 seconds. This is likely the length of the soundbite that will be used. During a live or live-to-tape interview, be ready to stop when the interviewer asks you to. They may be going to a commercial and you may get cut off by the commercial break. Likewise, if the interviewer breaks in during your answer with another question, stop speaking and listen to and answer the next question.
  • Be aware of the general message your words and body language portray; ideally that you are happy to share information. Maintain the thought that working with the media is a good thing, as opposed to it being a hassle or a confrontation. With this positive attitude, your body language will appear more natural and what you say will be seen as helpful. For TV interviews, try to avoid broad gestures and moving in your chair. Modulate your voice to convey emphasis, by raising and lowering the pitch and not the volume.

Conclusion

Historically, school leaders have not been overwhelmed by contacts from the media unless there were problems at the school or in the school system. Given the need to build support in the community and among a diverse group of stakeholders, wise school administrators recognize the need to proactively engage members of the print, audio, and visual media in spreading messages about the positive things occurring in today’s schools. Developing a positive communications plan and skills related to tools for securing the media’s attention are keys to success in dealing with the media. Advice that applies to all interactions with the media include the following: be timely in responding to media requests; be honest in dealings with the media; be prepared and know the message you want to communicate; avoid “no comment” answers; and be intentional and proactive in building positive relationships with the members of the media.

Working with the Topic: Student Assignments:

Assignment One: Prepare a News Release

Write a news release for local newspapers based on the following information (use only the relevant information):

  • John Smith has won first place in the state for extemporaneous speaking. He is a senior at Morningside High School.
  • Fred Brown, the Morningside High School principal, announced the award Monday.
  • One hundred twenty (120) students competed in the competition that was held at Sunnyside High School in Phoenix. Fred Brown graduated in Phoenix 15 years ago.
  • John Smith is captain of the baseball team and won a $5,000 scholarship. He plans to play baseball at Ohio State University.
  • Mary Bonita is John’s speech teacher and Ralph Alexander is his baseball coach.
  • Last year, John won second place in the same competition. This is the eighth time in the last 10 years that a Morningside High School student has won the award.
  • John has 3.4 grade point average (GPA) and is a member of the National Honor Society. He was president of the junior class.

Assignment Two: Prepare a Media Advisory

Write an advisory about an upcoming meeting of the committee charged with recommending a school calendar for the upcoming school that reflects all the recent limitations set by the state legislature. The advisory should include the meeting essentials and pertinent information.

Assignment Three: Prepare an Op-Ed Piece

Write an Op-Ed piece on an educational issue of your choice. The Op-Ed should not exceed 500 words. Possible topics might include the following: vouchers, the impact of the accountability movement, school finance, athletics, etc.

Assignment Four: Prepare for a Media Appearance

You are Lynn Jones, the principal of Bluebonnet Middle School. The local television station has set up an interview with you related to the impact of high-stakes testing on sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders. The interview is to take place the afternoon prior to a scheduled board meeting where the Board of Trustees will consider issues related to a documented pattern in the district where student test scores drop between elementary (PreK-5) school and middle school (6-8).

Teaching Note: If possible make arrangements with local reporters to conduct actual interviews with the students. A 15-minute interview will seem like an eternity to students but is adequate for experiencing the situation. Video tape the interview for student and peer review.

Resources

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. (2006). ASCD Advocacy Guide, Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Dolan, G. K. (1996). Communication: A practical guide to school and community relations. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Kowalski, T. J. (2004). Public relations in schools. (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall

Meek, A. (1999), Communicating with the public: A guide for school leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Rosborg, J., McGee, M., & Burgett, J. (2003). What every superintendent and principal needs to know: School leadership for the real world. Santa Maria, CA: Education Communication Unlimited.

Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. (n.d.). The ABCs of Op-Ed Writing. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from http://www.pubpol.duke.edu/newsmedia/op-ed/howto.html

Acknowledgement

The generosity of James L. Williamson, retired Professor Emeritus of Baylor University, in sharing materials he used in a School and Community Relations course is gratefully acknowledged.

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