Crisis? – A guide to handling the media

Swine Flu, snow and school closures….  We’ve had a number of schools contact us recently wanting advice about handling the media.  Here are a few easy to access tips for anyone in the Education Sector needing them in a hurry.

Picture the scene.  You pick up the phone and there’s a reporter on the other end – and she doesn’t want to chat about the runaway success of your last school fete either.

As tempting as it is to run for cover – don’t!

Reporters do not go away and if they don’t get the facts from you, they’ll get them from another, less reliable source.  Not speaking to a reporter does not mean she won’t print the story. It just means you won’t get to put your side.

Be prepared
Make sure you and your school secretary (or whoever answers the phone) is clued up on what to do when a crisis call comes.

  • Take down the reporter’s name and where they are calling from.
  • What exactly they want to know?
  • What is their deadline?
  • Alert the Head straightaway.

Contact your Media Team
Some Head Teachers are past masters at dealing with the media and prefer to handle things on their own. Even so, your Media Team should be informed about what’s happening so they can alert (if relevant) the Director of Education and relevant councillors etc… before they read the headlines.

The snowball effect
Don’t be fooled into thinking your story will go away once you’ve seen it splashed across the front page of the local newspaper – the nationals may pick up on it the next day.

If it’s a major and dramatic event – a child knocked down outside school; a pupil collapsing on the sports field from an undetected heart defect; an outbreak of meningitis – don’t under estimate the level of media interest.

You could have the media descending on the school to grab parents for their views as they pick up their children.

What they can and can’t do

  • Reporters can’t interview children under the age of 16 without permission
  • They are trespassing if they enter schools grounds without permission but can film from outside.
  • They can speak to parents as they enter or leave the school – another reason to keep them on your side and informed about what is happening.
  • If the inquiry is about a child in care or in court there is a vast amount of legislation to protect their identity.  Children who appear in youth court, for example, cannot be identified and that includes not naming the child’s school.  Be especially careful with these sensitive cases.

 

“I never said that…”

  • Don’t (ever) say “no comment” or any variation on that theme.  It immediately implies you have something to hide.
  • Do give a holding statement if you genuinely do not have enough information to comment.  Something like: “We are meeting with police to find out exactly what happened.  Children and staff are obviously terribly upset…” or “The Head Teacher is currently at the hospital with the pupil and his parents and our thoughts are with them…” or “We are speaking to public health officials about the situation and contacting parents immediately…”
  • Don’t speak off the record unless you know and trust the reporter you are talking to.
  • Don’t get over confident and start saying things you’ll regret later.
  • Do prepare a written statement to email to media on request.  It can buy you time before you answer more detailed questions or can be useful if the issue is sensitive and you don’t trust reporters to accurately report your comments.

 

(NB written statements are all but useless to radio and television which rely on sound and pictures).

Stress the positive
Whatever happens, there is ALWAYS something positive to say.  So say it.

Outline action plans to prevent similar incidents happening again, show you care by telling reporters how you’ve written to parents to explain the situation and reassure them.  Be open and honest – reporters have an uncanny knack of wheedling out the truth.

Don’t stick your head in the sand
If you know you’ve got a potentially hot potato on your hands, deal with it.

Then if the media picks up on it, you’ll be ready for them.

Follow through
When it’s all over, assess the damage.  It may be appropriate to write a letter to the editor of the local paper if they’ve got things wrong or failed to allow you a proper chance to give your side.

Maybe there will be an opportunity to right a wrong by coming up with a positive story to counteract the bad – a campaign for a new pedestrian crossing outside the school where the little boy was knocked down; a new school sports prize in memory of the pupil who collapsed on the field, a school fete to raise funds for meningitis research.