Don't stop the press - inform them

7th April 2000 at 01:00
David Mason knew when he took over as principal of a college with a pound;7 million deficit that he would need to tackle problems head-on - and that included talking to the media.

Earlier this year, his policy of openness seemed to pay off. Twenty-four hours before the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published the latest in a series of critical reports on Coleg Gwent, 'The Guardian' ran a major article outlining how Mr Mason and his team were striving to turn the college around.

A 'Guardian' journalist had contacted Clare Russell, Coleg Gwent's public relations manager, explaining that the paper wanted to run a story the day before the committee's report was due to appear. "He was trying to get something ahead of the game," says David Mason, who became principal two years ago.

The article suited the needs of the paper and the college. "We were very pleased. Journalists tend to pick over the negative bones, but we had the opportunity to put over the message that we were tackling the problems, including the large financial deficit."

Coleg Gwent is rarely out of the local newspapers, not least because of a long-running lecturers' dispute over pay and redundancies. David Mason tries to be honest with journalsts, admitting that previously his college was "trying to defend the indefensible", and believes recent reports about the dispute have been generally fair to both sides.

In spite of interest from newspapers such as 'The Guardian', Coleg Gwent is more interested in the media coverage it receives in Wales. One of the jobs facing Clare Russell and Robert Gilvear, the college's director of marketing and corporate planning, is to cultivate contacts at the 'Western Mail' in Cardiff - which is more likely to be read by members of the Welsh Assembly - and at Red Dragon Radio.

Robert Gilvear previously worked in consumer marketing. He says: "PR is one of the tools you use to get messages across to customers. We need to be proactive rather than reactive, and try to develop relationships with key journalists."

Before Clare Russell's arrival 18 months ago, the college employed a PR company which sent out press releases and dealt with media interest in events at Coleg Gwent, including a demonstration at the college's farm by animal rights activists. "When you're in a crisis, it's useful to have an external PR firm on board," says Mr Mason. "But otherwise you're better off with somebody handling the media internally."

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