Beware editors and predators;Briefing;School Management

16th October 1998 at 01:00
Trying to block out the prying journalists is not a good strategy, says Stephen Hoare. It's better to deal with them on your own terms

George Varnava was head of Ashburton School in Croydon for a matter of weeks before he made headline news. After a period of special measures, his was one of the schools the Government decided to name and shame.

Angry parents and local politicians held a secret meeting, at which there were calls for the school to be shut. Two politicians announced that they would not send their children to the school.

The press had a field day. The Daily Mail sent a reporter and a photographer who sat in a car outside the school gates all day waiting for an incident to develop.

Mr Varnava recalls: "It was a really terrible, very hurtful. It was destroying morale at a time when the school was beginning to make progress. We were in the middle of our second Ofsted review and we didn't need that."

In Wolverhampton, media attention added to the distress of a machete attack on pupils at St Luke's primary school. Denise Bennett, the headteacher, says: "The press were jamming the school switchboard even before the first emergency service arrived."

Unwelcome media attention can do a lot of damage. In the light of such traumas, many heads would have battened down the hatches and turned their school into a fortress. Mrs Bennett stipulated that the school would only grant access to one representative from television, radio and the press. Mr Varnava issued a general invitation to the media to come and see what policies he was putting into practice and what the results were.

He says: "The general public need to see what education is all about. They have a right to know what is happening in our schools. Education is too important to leave to schools alone."

Phoenix High School, formerly Hammersmith School, in west London, was nearly closed down after press reports dubbed it "the worst school in Britain".

The headteacher who turned the school round, William Atkinson, establishes the agenda well in advance of a press meeting so he is not caught out. If there is bad news, then it is important to give the school's version of events.

"Fortunately I've got all I wanted from the press," he says. "But I'm highly selective about who I deal with. I only let the quality in - the BBC, The TES, The Times, Independent, Guardian, Daily Telegraph. I need the media for my own ends, but I never let them disrupt the day-to-day life of the school."

Mr Atkinson has had his own share of bad experiences. After an adverse story appeared in the Daily Express, he greeted the next reporter that paper sent to the school with the words, "I see you as an estate agent or a used car salesman." As Mr Atkinson mellowed, he challenged the reporter to spend an afternoon at the school to find out what it was really like. He accepted but no story appeared subsequently.

Mr Atkinson shrugs, "He told me later that more important news had pushed it off the page. When a reporter is with you they're nice and polite, but when they get back to the office their significant other is the editor."

There is an important difference between specialist press and general reporters. Mr Varnava says: "Education journalists know the main issues - they treat you fairly. But tabloid hacks distort the picture."

Mike Baker, the BBC News education correspondent, observes: "When a paper wants to do a hatchet job they send in a general reporter."

He has covered most of the high-profile schools stories of recent years - Ashburton, Phoenix High, Hackney Downs. He has always tried to present a balanced story, but when a school shuts itself off this becomes more difficult.

"The Ridings School got it wrong because the school and the local authority tried to put up the shutters. It looked as if they had something to hide."

His advice is simple. "Be as open as you can with the media. If the school has invited a journalist to spend time in school then it's a lot more difficult for them to make a snap judgment."

But it is no use inviting a journalist in if you do not know what to tell them. Heads who have established positive relations with the press emphasise the importance of having a fully prepared media strategy: a clear statement of where the school is going, a response to a particular situation. For a time after the St Luke's machete attack Mrs Bennett pinned up a statement by the phone that staff could read out to journalists. Her secretary and the local authority press office helped to take much of the heat.

Chris Davies, head of Queniborough primary school, Leicestershire, and a spokesman for the Primary Heads Association, deals with journalists and camera crews at least a dozen times a term, usually in response to a press release. Having built up a reputation for being media-friendly, TV and radio stations now beat a path to his door in the sure knowledge that he will provide them with that all-important soundbite.

But just having a friendly and open manner won't keep journalists from filing a juicy story about your school. "No journalist worth his salt will swallow your press releases hook, line and sinker," says Mr Davies. "If you tell them your Ofsted report was glowing they'll want to see it and then they will pick out the bits you didn't tell them about."

The converse of this is that the press will ignore your story when it suits them, reporting what they think the public wants. The media-feeding frenzy surrounding the photogenic Lisa Potts has eclipsed the real tragedy at St Luke's.

Mrs Bennett explains: "There's a fundamental need for everyone involved to feel valued and recognised for the part they played. The press ignored the vital role played by Linda Jones, the reception teacher, Dorothy Hawes, the nursery teacher, and parents who saved children's lives on that day."

Finally, a dire warning comes from the Funding Agency for Schools' media advice booklet, "A Spokesman Said ...". Journalists are a tenacious breed capable of piecing a story together from a whole host of disparate sources. "Never refuse a journalist because your spokesman is unavailable; you may regret it later."

"A Spokesman Said ..." is available from: The Communications Office, Funding Agency for Schools, Albion Wharf, 25 Skeldergate, York YO1 2XL TEN POINTERS TO SURVIVING THE MEDIA

1 Know your media: nurture press contacts. As well as the local or regional press - daily, weekly and freesheets - your story may be of interest to a monthly county magazine, regional radio and television stations, cable television station, press agencies, national broadcasters and newspapers and, of course, the education press.

2 Spokesmenwomen: agree on a single media person for your school. Journalists will appreciate a single contact, but be flexible and never refuse to speak to the media because that person is unavailable. Do not be tempted to give this responsibility to a junior colleague. Responses should be at the highest level - the headteacher or chairman of governors - and whoever responds should use their name and position to discourage attribution to a "spokesperson".

3 Emergencies: don't let the media take the initiative from you. Have an agreed holding statement which admits the existence of a problem that you are looking into as a matter of urgency and that you cannot comment until facts are established. Do not give information which might help the media to contact parents before you can. Be aware of the human interest in your situation and give regular bulletins.

4 "No comment": never say this. A specific query calls for a specific answer, but not necessarily immediately. If you are genuinely unavailable for comment, make contact as soon as you can. Delaying tactics give breathing space and the opportunity to consult others. There are ways of not giving a comment without saying so; say it nicely, with apologies for being unable to be specific.

5 Be wary speaking off the record.

6 Always return telephone calls.

7 Be helpful to reporters and photographers - they will remember it 8 Networking: Use other schools to exchange comments. Your story may have a wider base. Schools of a similar type - grant-maintained, for example - working together may be able to tell a coherent story with greater press appeal.

9 Complaints: Be wary. Better to let minor inaccuracies go unchallenged than to risk a correction that repeats the original error by way of explanation, possibly fixing false information in people's minds.

11 Seize opportunities to invite the media into your school. Determine when you have a natural reason to involve them - academic milestones such as examination results and prize days and administrative milestones such as governors' meetings. A big capital project could also be a good opportunity. Perhaps invite journalists for lunch with key staff or to discuss media careers with senior pupils. A press pack for visitors can be useful.

TEN POINTERS TO SURVIVING THE MEDIA

1 Know your media: nurture press contacts. As well as the local or regional press - daily, weekly and freesheets - your story may be of interest to a monthly county magazine, regional radio and television stations, cable television station, press agencies, national broadcasters and newspapers and, of course, the education press.

2 Spokesmenwomen: agree on a single media person for your school. Journalists will appreciate a single contact, but be flexible and never refuse to speak to the media because that person is unavailable. Do not be tempted to give this responsibility to a junior colleague. Responses should be at the highest level - the headteacher or chairman of governors - and whoever responds should use their name and position to discourage attribution to a "spokesperson".

3 Emergencies: don't let the media take the initiative from you. Have an agreed holding statement which admits the existence of a problem that you are looking into as a matter of urgency and that you cannot comment until facts are established. Do not give information which might help the media to contact parents before you can. Be aware of the human interest in your situation and give regular bulletins.

4 "No comment": never say this. A specific query calls for a specific answer, but not necessarily immediately. If you are genuinely unavailable for comment, make contact as soon as you can. Delaying tactics give breathing space and the opportunity to consult others. There are ways of not giving a comment without saying so; say it nicely, with apologies for being unable to be specific.

5 Be wary speaking off the record.

6 Always return telephone calls.

7 Be helpful to reporters and photographers - they will remember it 8 Networking: Use other schools to exchange comments. Your story may have a wider base. Schools of a similar type - grant-maintained, for example - working together may be able to tell a coherent story with greater press appeal.

9 Complaints: Be wary. Better to let minor inaccuracies go unchallenged than to risk a correction that repeats the original error by way of explanation, possibly fixing false information in people's minds.

11 Seize opportunities to invite the media into your school. Determine when you have a natural reason to involve them - academic milestones such as examination results and prize days and administrative milestones such as governors' meetings. A big capital project could also be a good opportunity. Perhaps invite journalists for lunch with key staff or to discuss media careers with senior pupils. A press pack for visitors can be useful.

The Ridings, the inside story, Friday magazine

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