Children aren’t allowed to play conkers any more unless they wear protective goggles. Many people believe this to be true, but it’s a myth.
In 2009, it emerged that the original source for this ‘fact’ was a headteacher who genuinely wanted his pupils to learn about horse chestnuts and how the traditional game was played. When one child asked about safety gear, the head had an idea that he thought would make a fun photo for the local paper – and you can guess the rest…
It serves as a perfect example of how a positive and well-intentioned story can have unexpected and sometimes negative consequences. Local news is picked up by the national papers, television and radio and used to fit an agenda – in this case, ‘Elf ‘n’ safety gone mad!’
Along similar lines, all of us will have witnessed how the Chinese Whispers of school gate gossip can result in parents storming in, demanding to know why a school is suddenly taking a particular course when the school in question is simply continuing to pursue something it’s already done for years. It’s a process that’s becoming ever more amplified and accelerated by social media.
Jamie Barry, headteacher at Parson Street Primary in south Bristol, found himself in the eye of one such storm after organising a Drag Queen Story Time to foster tolerance and understanding. The event shouldn’t have been a surprise, since Parson Street has previously received a Gold award from the charity Educate & Celebrate for its practice in helping children learn about diversity and equality. Yet some parents – inevitably, anonymously – accused the school of inappropriately bringing in adult entertainers and the media swooped.
Barry, however, succeeded in achieving balanced coverage overall thanks to his proactive approach with respect to the school community, the wider community and the media. The school’s existing good relationships with parents meant that many were willing to come forward and provide supportive comments for reporters.
Similarly, when the school dropped a grade following an Ofsted inspection, families were unworried. They knew from the consistent messaging they received that this was just one measure and that the school was doing many good things.
“We are very open about our school with our public Facebook and Twitter accounts,” says Barry.
“We deliberately decided at the start of the academic year to hashtag all of our posts #BestSchoolYearEver to showcase all that we do.”
Barry goes on to describe how the school has gone about working with journalists: “You learn who you can trust. By building relationships, there’s a better chance when adversity strikes of them seeing the big picture and the wider context.”
It can help schools when reporters know more about how they work, but it’s also important for people involved in education to understand the media – especially the various ways in which it’s changed within the last few years.
Newspaper sales have plummeted as advertising and news has continued to move online. Journalists are typically under pressure to get clicks on their stories, hence the frequency with which their stories are pushed out via social media. Journalists will also regularly scour Facebook and Twitter, on the lookout for issues and exchanges that are either already provoking lively debate or have the potential to do so.
So what should do you do if they spot some chat concerning your school or students and contact you for a response? Obviously, it depends on the story. In some cases, transparency may be the best policy; in others, a short statement will be better. ‘No comment’, however, is almost never a sensible response.
It’s also wise to ensure that all policies, values, information and contact details on your website are fully up to date. If a story involving your school breaks over a weekend, this is the first place a journalist will look.
Dean Blake is communications manager for the 15-school Cabot Learning Federation, and has extensive experience of supporting headteachers in dealing with press inquiries. His advice is to embrace interview requests whenever it’s practically possible, and approach them with the attitude that they present an opportunity to talk to parents, prospective parents and the wider community. His success in building relationships with journalists means they now often come to him when needing a school-based spokesperson or setting to illustrate a national education story.
“My main tip when dealing with the press is to ensure you know the subject you’ll be speaking about 200%, so that you’re not tripped up or caught out,” he says. “If it’s a radio interview, check whether it’s live or pre-recorded, and whether you’ll be up against someone presenting an alternative point of view.”
Occasionally, headteachers can become embroiled in news stories that don’t originate in school, such as when a child is killed in an accident. In such cases the headteacher’s priority will, of course, be supporting upset staff, children and parents rather than talking to the press – but working with the media can sometimes actually take the pressure off others.
Rich Coulter, my Local Voice Media colleague, cites an example of a newly appointed headteacher who had to deal with requests for TV interviews, following the sudden death of a student from a meningitis-related illness. “She thought she had to speak to them,” he recalls. “I reassured her that she didn’t, but conceded it might be helpful to give them something.
“We agreed with the journalists that the head would read a prepared statement to camera about what the school was doing to support its community, but we wouldn’t touch on any of the medical aspects, as those were for Public Health England to address. The press people were delighted, as they hadn’t expected to be allowed in at all.”
It’s worth thinking about how you might respond in these and other similar scenarios. Crisis media training for headteachers is unlikely to be affordable, but it’s definitely worth talking to colleagues and sharing ideas. If you’re really camera shy, your school business leader or chair of governors could perhaps take on interview duties – maybe while you play conkers (but not Chinese Whispers…)
3 press interview rules
- Answer the question
- Be honest
- Counter the criticism
Linda Tanner is an education journalist and communications consultant with Local Voice Media, chair of a primary academy council and has previously served as an LA primary governor and a MAT board member