What is the Media and How Do We Relate to Them?
The definition of “media” is changing. At one time, school boards could expect ongoing coverage from a local newspaper reporter familiar with the education beat. Today, news is delivered primarily electronically through television, radio, online news sources and blogs, and word travels rapidly through social media. Fewer newspapers exist, and those that do operate with a much leaner staff. Reporters who are well-versed in the intricacies of public education are few and far between. This provides school boards both and opportunity and a responsibility to reach out to the media using a well-developed plan.
But first, a board must understand how the media views its role. Reporters feel a responsibility to the public to report what they see and hear. What they report in the news and what they say in their editorial comments influences the public’s attitude toward the schools. If media attend a board meeting and observe that trivial rather than important matters are being discussed, that is what they will present to the public. If they observe dissension among the board, news reports will reflect that dissension. If reporters hear discussions of significant issues along with constructive and civil debate, there is a better chance for meaningful coverage of school issues. It is also helpful to understand the definition of news: something new, unusual or noteworthy. From a media perspective, this often includes conflict, crisis and even the bizarre.
It behooves a school board to direct the superintendent to develop a media-relations plan as part of the overall district communications plan. While the media’s job does not necessarily include promoting the school district, a media plan allows the district to be proactive with the news media and often results in more favorable coverage. The absence of a plan often renders the district reactive to the media. And, in the event of a crisis in the district, a well-developed media plan is essential.
What’s in a Media Relations Plan?
The plan should include a clear definition of district spokespersons. In general, a school board should speak to the media only on board or board policy issues. The board president generally serves as the official spokesperson for the board, and individual board members should refer media questions to the spokesperson when possible. The superintendent or designated district staff members should speak to the media on all other district matters. However, when dissention is present, the media will often try to get “both sides of the story.” This means when there is disagreement among board members or among board and staff, reporters will focus on the conflict. Individual members should resist the urge to participate in this kind of coverage, as it can exacerbate the situation and reflect negatively on the district’s image.
The district’s media plan should include strategies for building positive working relationships with media representatives. The media should be kept advised of major school district initiatives, district accomplishments, scheduled activities in the district and other newsworthy issues. Similarly, when crises arise or there is “bad news” to report, the media should be given factual information in a timely and fair manner. The district’s media relations plan should outline steps to be taken in reporting to the media during a crisis.
Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is putting on its shoes.” With the advent of social media, this old adage is more true than ever. School boards should think carefully about what is posted on social media, knowing that comments and photos can be spread widely in a manner of minutes, can be misrepresented and cannot be erased or taken back. Individual board members should treat social media as they do any other interaction with the public, understanding that people often confuse a board member’s personal opinion with an official position of the board as a whole.
Crisis Communication: Prepare for the Unexpected
Every school district should have a written plan for communicating during a crisis, and then with good fortune, never have to use it. In the context of public relations, a crisis could include such situations as a group of angry citizens, student protest, personnel issue, weather event, a school shooting or any number of other events that affect students, the schools or the district as a whole. Obviously in any crisis, the safety and security of students and staff are paramount. But also, the manner in which a crisis is handled directly affects the district’s reputation.
The most important factor in maintaining a good reputation in a difficult situation is how well the school district communicates year-round. Relationships that are nurtured on an ongoing basis generally remain strong during a crisis. Staff and community members who are accustomed to receiving regular and trusted information from district leaders will turn to them for the facts during a crisis. A board should ensure that the superintendent has in place a written plan for communicating during a crisis. The plan should include such items as designated spokespersons, vehicles for communication, audiences who will receive communication and in what order, and guidelines for what information may be communicated.
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