Leadership teams focusing on the day-to-day oversight of classrooms and corridors could be forgiven for largely disregarding the needs of local media. Their schedules are full enough already without speaking to reporters, and the reputation of journalism is such that many schools fear being "caught out" when talking to the press. Worse still, those who do speak to the media are often labelled "attention-seekers" or "egotists".
But school leaders who ignore the media are not only missing a major marketing trick but also a chance to put systems in place and build relationships with reporters and editors that may pay dividends if a crisis occurs.
Communicating with the media takes time. Schools need someone who is able to gather information about likely stories from busy teachers and has the skills to present a coherent and lively narrative, including usable, jargon-free quotes. Gaining approval for copy from the same hectic teachers and senior leaders can take some determination, too.
Then there is the necessary task of ringing up reporters - ideally not on their press day - to "sell in" a story before you send it, which is far preferable to dispatching it unannounced and risking it being overlooked.
This may sound like a hassle but selling yourself to the local community is important: it breeds confidence in the school and makes the students proud to attend it. Talking to the media regularly also builds relationships that could be very useful in the event of a crisis, when you may need to ask for their assistance or find a way to get your side of the story across.
To handle media relations properly, a specific person has to be appointed to the role, whether that's an internal member of staff you train up or someone brought in on a freelance basis. This may seem like an extravagance but a dedicated press officer can work wonders. Here's what they can do.
Spotting news stories
Teachers are not journalists and rarely have the time to consider their projects from an outsider's perspective. For example, one head of science bought some near-extinct fruit tree varieties on a school trip to a botanic garden. The planting of these trees would have been a great photo opportunity in combination with a press release explaining the initiative's relevance to the science curriculum. But the chance was overlooked. Often it takes someone with an overview of the situation to realise the potential in a story, and to have the time and skills to sell it properly.
When teachers are busy with an event, the last thing they want to do is attend to a photographer's needs. This is why someone is required to fill the role of liaison: they can ensure that the professionals capture the shots they need without taking over.
Providing good, comprehensive copy
The better the copy, the more page space it's likely to command. Similarly, every topic is an opportunity to reiterate important messages about the school's core values. Having a specific person writing press releases means that they can learn what each publication wants and cater to its needs, increasing the chances of publication.
By putting out stories you are advertising yourself as a source of comment, so schools need to prepare for such unsolicited attention and have a press officer ready to mediate and field calls. Cultivating such relationships will prove especially valuable if something unfortunate happens and you need well-disposed reporters open to your version of events.
The local press won't be able to get a photographer to a school every time there is something noteworthy going on, so it is necessary to have someone in-house who can take press-quality photographs. It is also a good idea to give the leaders of school trips a crash course in formally setting up shots, because casually taken snaps rarely work. For example, a recent Flanders battlefields tour by one school produced hundreds of images, of which only three were usable for subsequent press purposes, and then only after considerable digital manipulation.
Keeping an eye on and distributing articles is time-consuming but crucial. As the leader of one school I've worked with says: "It's great to celebrate our students' achievements and our teachers' creativity with press coverage." Enlarging articles and putting them on public display is a great fillip for students and staff; it impresses parents, too.
No doubt some staff will be initially nonplussed when faced with someone who has a press relations brief. A key part of the job is making solid in-school contacts as well as external ones among the local media. One sign that things are going well will be a growing stock of story suggestions as teachers get wise to the possibility of their hard work receiving the print and broadcast recognition it deserves.
Jerome Monahan is a teacher who has been a press officer for charities and financial institutions, and has fulfilled this function in schools where he has taught full-time.