Cream off the best attention

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Mike Fielding describes how he dealt with the media when his school became involved in a mad cow story.

It promised to be an ordinary beginning to what, with inspection offing, could be an interesting year. The school looked clean and well-cared for; teachers refreshed; children cheerful. The sun shone. Only one cloud lurked on the horizon.

The German exchange students due to arrive in the second week were refusing to eat beef, lamb or dairy products because of fears about BSE. Awkward for their host families, perhaps, but in most areas not likely to be a major issue. But here in Devon, where livelihoods and culture depend on cattle and sheep, it had explosive potential.

All receiving parents, however, when told of the ban imposed by the Germans' parents, insisted they could cope and the visit should go ahead. We offered advice on alternative foods and pointed out that the German parents did not expect the host families to make special arrangements or go to extra expense to accommodate the ban.

My chairman of governors, a dairy farmer who initially felt angered and insulted, also agreed there was no question of cancelling the trip. We would welcome the youngsters and perhaps try to educate them.

But, could we keep this situation to ourselves? For more than a week it seemed we could but then - on Friday of the first week back - I got the call. "I understand some Germans who're visiting your college have laid down some interesting food rules," said the news agency reporter who got through to me. Thus began 10 days' media attention which might have been disastrous but, by and large, worked out well.

Schools often feel threatened by the media and react highhandedly or naively. For us, the first aim was to work out what we wanted to achieve from what was bound to be a major news story and then co-operate with the media to achieve our objectives as well as enable them to achieve theirs.

At its most extreme, this story could have reached international conflict proportions with questions being asked in Parliament, the Bundestag and the European Commission. Even if that happened, the two schools - ourselves and our German partners - had to come out of it well. We must not squabble, nor must the two sets of parents fall out. So the emphasis was to be on co-operation in the interests of both sets of young people having as good a visit as our students had in Hanover earlier in the year. We would also focus on the educational opportunities of the visit and the chance to counter some of the hysterical German media coverage of BSE.

I wrote a press release which gave the true facts of the ban - how it had come about, when we'd heard, what we were doing; recognised the potential for upset in our community; but pointed to the importance of sustaining the happy links we'd always enjoyed with our German partners. It included useable quotes and offered further co-operation. Every media outlet which contacted us received a faxed copy and based at least their initial coverage firmly on it.

To keep everyone informed, this paper was also sent to all the parents involved, all governors and the German school. We didn't want anyone to put their foot in it through ignorance of the line we were taking.

Monday's newspaper coverage - most of the nationals carried something - was fairly balanced. Even contentious headlines such as "No Milk Please, We're German" came over stories which carried the facts and recognised that, for the German students and their parents, this was a genuine conscience issue.

After the Press, came radio and television - mostly regional but some national. Again, full co-operation was our key strategy. By being open and supportive of the reporters' need to do their jobs and produce good news coverage, it seemed likely we'd be well treated. And we were.

The story's main angle shifted as the week progressed. Initially focusing, somewhat wryly, on the German youngsters missing out on cream teas and fish and chips (milk in the batter), the mood hardened as the week progressed to make more of the "anger of local people". Even then, however, good balance was maintained and respect given to our plan for a "teach in" on BSE from a vet. This was accepted as the proper function of an education establishment in these circumstances.

And so the week passed. The German students were hardly disturbed; their Devon counterparts thought a fuss was being made about very little; and the rest of the students were highly amused by my bit parts on television or radio. The sour note was an editorial in one of our local papers which, it was claimed, was meant to amuse but brought latent xenophobia near to the surface.

There is, I'm sure, a lesson in our experience which Ishall certainly employ on any future occasion that the media spotlight falls on us. Co-operation is better than confrontation; openness is better than trying to hide what reporters will find out anyway; and, if you keep some clear goals in mind, you can really exercise a significant measure of control over the way your story is covered.

Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon

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