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The persuaders

John Kirkaldy has some advice for those who have to sweet-talk the media

Every educational organisation should be ready for that call. It can come at any time day or night usually when least expected. At the other end will be a journalist, wanting immediate answers to a hostile or critical story, which could be about anything from missing money to a sex scandal.

In these marketing-orientated days, most institutions have at least some contact with the local media. The deal is that in return for interesting and newsy stories, the establishment, hopefully, gets lots of free publicity. It comes as something of a shock, therefore, to find those same journalists can on occasions bare their teeth. After all, the media deals in news and this is often linked to controversy or scandal. The same hand that writes flattering stories is just as capable of writing critical ones.

There are some basic principles. First, every media officer must have access to every staff member's address and phone number. The more controversial the story is, the more likely it will break at the most inconvenient time. Second, never comment on any enquiry without finding out the facts all of them. Tell the journalist you will call back (and make sure that you do) and check. Third, never, ever lie.

Every institution ought to do a trial run. Brain storm some damaging scenarios industrial action, disciplinary procedures, scandal, financial impropriety and accidents in or out of the classroom let the imagination run riot.

Ask yourself basic questions how would you cope? What procedures would you adopt? Who is the best person to comment? How would you get an action plan going from a standing start?

Underlying this are some important guidelines be helpful, be prompt, be positive and be prepared. Make a list of agencies that might be able to help employer and trade union organisations, county hall, the DFEE and so on. There are firms that will also help you but be warned they are expensive. Above all else, hostile or critical publicity must be countered. Those who believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity do not live in the real world. Just ask Hugh Grant.

There are three scenarios: the story is wrong, the story is right, the story is in between these two extremes. If you are totally in the right, the temptation is to go off at full steam, fuelled by indignation, hurt and anger. Make sure that every point is refuted and if possible, add a little more on top. A few years ago a woman wrote to the local paper, complaining that she had been ignored and patronised while applying for maths classes. Not only were we able to prove that this was not the case (staff had spent over half an hour with her during a busy enrolment session), but the week after her claim we found several women who were very happy to write into the paper, saying that not only had they been treated fairly but they had been given every encouragement to join maths classes.

If you are wrong, it is best to say so; apologise and say what steps you are doing to rectify the situation. Then, if possible, try to show what else you are doing in that area which is positive. One major proviso is legal liability: before admitting guilt, check the law (if in any doubt whatsoever get expert advice). The same procedure goes for those instances of "a whiter shade of grey" where there is some truth in the allegations but it is not the whole story. If you cannot comment for the moment say why.

If you think that the local or national media have been biased or unfair, make sure that you use the official complaints procedures. Before doing so, however, complain to the editor or radio station director. It is my experience that most media organisations, particularly local ones, are prepared to correct erroneous items.

Make sure that any correction is prompt, given the same prominence and itself does not have any inaccuracies. You should not expect to get, a month later, a one paragraph retraction on page 94, next to the pigeon results (read by hardly anybody), which rebuts a page one exclusive. The letters page is a very good place to counter on any critical comment and is probably read by more people than the original story.

Avoid, however, interminable correspondence, which drags on for weeks in which the two sides score off each other to the total boredom and confusion of all other readers.

Treat hostile comment like a lover's tiff. Sort it out and then go back to normal. You still need the local media and they need you. Do not harbour grudges but learn from any mistakes on either side. You may find that like a lover's tiff, your relationship with the media can be strengthened.

John Kirkaldy is media officer at Salisbury College

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