Even headline writers have their uses

28th October 2005 at 01:00
The headline in the London evening paper screamed "Inner city headteacher says, I had to bring the police in to bring order to my school". They were talking about me.

The first I knew of the emerging disaster was a phone call from the local authority press office to ask whether I had seen the story. My PA was instantly sent to buy a copy.

Sure enough, there it was. It had started with a quick conversation with a "friendly" reporter who was covering a story for the Labour party conference. He had found an old reference to a story about my school and he thought it would make a good example of a school positively managing anti-social behaviour. He phoned to check the facts were correct and I had no problem confirming them.

The problem was that the story itself was positive, but the headline was a disaster. I subsequently learned that while reporters write the story, editors edit it and sub-editors do the headlines. I also learned that stories written for one newspaper can end up (often a month later) in other publications. These are often ones I would not be seen dead reading either in public or private.

The press office was kindly offering advice on how to cope with the aftermath. But there was no aftermath. I don't know how many people read that paper but I have had no feedback on the story or the headline. In contrast, local papers carrying negative stories are more likely to be picked up by parents and the community.

One particular event some years back was given front-page coverage with a headline that read "School in anarchy - parents demand head's resignation", or something similar. The truth is, I have erased the exact details from my memory. While this was a particularly painful experience, it had no long-term effect on my school or me. Heads can get really worried about dealing with the media. As a new head, I did two courses on the subject and found them both very useful. We all know that we need to feed positive good-news stories to the local press. This is free publicity and helps to enhance the profile and reputation of the school.

However, we are warned that negative stories need more careful handling and often a "no comment" response. I understand why this advice is given, particularly where there has been a tragedy or a serious incident in a particular school. The legal implications of saying the wrong thing can be enormous. But I do feel that we have a responsibility to engage in the debate around more difficult, less positive stories.

Being a media-friendly school means we get many requests from the press and TV to cover more controversial topics such as anti-bullying, anti-homophobia and anti-racist work, as well as stories around knife crime. Instead of refusing to get involved in such public debate, we embrace it and try to portray a positive image of inner-city schools.

Mostly it works. Occasionally, it goes wrong. However, the truth is that the amount of positive publicity we have had vastly outstrips any negative coverage. We are proud of what we do, and keen to share our success. We take risks and try to "manage" the coverage. We have learnt to anticipate the negative stories and get in first before something negative can be written.

Heads should not be afraid of dealing with the media. They are not the enemy. They can really help us to get our message across - headline-writers included. The only positive lesson I learned from Margaret Thatcher was that all you have to do is decide what it is you want to say, say it loud and clear, say it again and again until you get your message across. Don't be afraid of the media. They are there to serve us.

Kenny Frederick is headteacher at George Green's school in Tower Hamlets

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