In the eye of the storm

25th January 2013 at 00:00
The media storm, that is. Richard Vaughan looks at what happens when schools unwittingly attract unwanted media attention and what they can do to mitigate the damage

When Andy Howe moved his Year 6 theatre production from just before Christmas to later in the year, it seemed like a thoroughly sensible decision.

Howe had recently taken on the headship of Rochford Primary in Essex, an underperforming school that had become a cause of concern for the local authority.

He concluded that the play was too distracting for his pupils at an important time of the year and considered that it would be better to stage it in the summer term, after the Sats tests.

Little did he realise the impact this seemingly inconsequential decision would have. "The local newspaper got hold of it and managed to get a number of facts wrong. Somehow it ended up as `Scrooge cancels Christmas'," Howe says.

And then it got worse. The Daily Mail ran the story with the headline "`Christmas cancelled': Head tells older pupils `no nativity this year. you need to concentrate on your studies'".

"It was totally surreal," Howe recalls. "The articles said it was a nativity play, but it wasn't. The pupils were producing a pantomime; we still held the nativity for our Key Stage 1 pupils and have done ever since."

The simple fact is that very few primary schools put on nativity plays with their older students at all.

Nonetheless, the Daily Mail's article carried quotes "branding" Howe's decision - in December 2010 - as "ridiculous", with one mother claiming the move had "in effect, cancelled Christmas" for her children.

It became a frenzy. The story appeared in every paper from The Daily Telegraph to The Sun. Before long, Howe was fielding calls from Vanessa Feltz on BBC radio and other radio shows demanding to know how a headteacher could be so miserly just before Christmas.

"I was caught between amusement - everyone who knew me thought it was hilarious - and the fact that it was a very big distraction," the head says. "If you were a sensitive soul you could say how unfair it all is, but that's the media."

That is indeed the modern media. One moment they can be smiling benignly at your impressive Sats results, wagging their tails contentedly as you hitch a ride on their backs. The next minute the smile can turn to a snarl and you can be on the receiving end of a mauling.

In the line of fire

Howe's experience of finding himself on the wrong side of the headlines is something of a growing phenomenon for headteachers and their schools. The nation's newspapers daily run stories about heads and their "barmy" decisions - online as well as in print.

There are too many examples to count. The most recent involved St Cyprian's Greek Orthodox Primary in South London, which hit the headlines after Muslim parents decided to sue the school after it allegedly "banned" pupils from wearing the hijab. And there was the head who decided against her pupils making Mother's Day cards one year - as she wanted to spare the feelings of those who had lost their mothers. The Sun ran a story with the headline "Mum's Day cards ban at school".

Then there was the school that had called for calm when playing tag in the playground because some children were aggressively thumping one another. A parent went to the local press and the head was labelled "bonkers" for supposedly banning the traditional game.

Yet another head was sent hate mail calling him a "fascist" because a newspaper article had exaggerated a story in which it claimed he had forbidden hugging in the school.

The column inches devoted to such stories are increasing and the trend is likely to continue as more schools decide to become academies, effectively forfeiting the support that local authorities provide, particularly with regard to media enquiries.

According to the NAHT heads' union, its members are getting in touch at a rate of more than two a week for advice on how to deal with unwanted media attention.

The most notable case referred to the union last month was that of Eldwick Primary School, in Bingley, West Yorkshire, which was branded by the Daily Mail, rather implausibly, as being "anti-children". The complaint came from a mother who was threatening to boycott her own child's Christmas concert because her youngest children were reportedly "banned" from seeing their elder sibling perform.

Eldwick's headteacher Janice Kershaw had made the decision to not allow babies and young children to attend, partly because the noise of so many small children was disruptive, and also because of fire regulations. Nevertheless, the rule was described by the paper as "Scrooge-esque".

Kershaw's encounter with the media is just one of many. Typing "schools" into a newspaper archive service brings up thousands of hits, and Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, believes the problem has grown worse in recent years.

"Two years ago we didn't have a press office, and we did a little bit of PR as part of our job, but we started getting more and more requests to support individual members. Our press office (is now substantial)," Hobby says.

"It gets worse in this sort of climate as well because there is a bit of public service baiting going on. You make a rational decision and suddenly you're reading about it in the paper."

Local newspapers, he says, are using Freedom of Information requests more and more to find out if schools are spending taxpayers' money wisely. Headteachers' conferences, for example, are often spotlighted for how much they cost and how long they last.

Hobby believes that heads should consider media training, so that they know what to do if and when a journalist calls with the intention of running a story that will not put the school in a favourable light. But above all, headteachers should know when they are getting out of their depth.

"It is important to get success stories out there in the local press, and more often than not the newspapers will run them," he says. "But it is also important to know how to react when there is a negative story. There are things you can say that will make it better or worse.

"Nine times out of 10 it's best to ignore the stories. It will be tomorrow's chip paper and the best advice we can give is that while it may feel bad at the time, people will forget about it quite quickly. The key is to keep talking to the community so that they know what is happening."

Dealing with the media has become an essential skill for headteachers. Indeed, the need for schools to court the press is increasingly significant these days as the competition for pupils and the importance of being seen to be successful by the community becomes more acute. Long gone are the days when a head could get on with his or her job and pretend the media weren't there.

Bonkers conkers

One former headteacher who was almost an expert at using the press for his own ends was Shaun Halfpenny, who ran Cummersdale Primary School near Carlisle until his retirement in 2005. "Almost" because on one famous occasion his dealings with the press backfired spectacularly.

Although Halfpenny's name is not instantly recognisable, the story he conjured is so well known it has almost passed into legend; he was the head who reportedly "forced" his pupils to wear safety goggles when playing conkers.

The story became so famous that it was referred to in a speech by David Cameron just months before he became prime minister. Cameron used the story as an example of how the health-and-safety culture was "stultifying" the country as he tried to appeal to those on the right of his party.

Even the hit BBC game show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, featured the conkers story on one of its programmes to illustrate the various health-and-safety myths that are still believed by the public.

It all started in 2004 after a group of Halfpenny's pupils had discovered horse chestnuts while on a school trip, but were unsure of how to play conkers. The headteacher said he would show them how but said they would have to wear goggles because of health and safety. While many came out in favour of this safety measure, Halfpenny is insistent that this instruction was a mere joke.

"I was jesting, but the next day they were all playing conkers with safety goggles on," Halfpenny laughs. "We had a visitor to the school who thought it was hilarious and said I should get in touch with the local rag to do it as a story."

Halfpenny had a good relationship with his local paper, the Carlisle Times amp; Star, and it ran the piece. But Halfpenny had no idea of the consequences.

"I received a call the next day. It was someone saying they were from Radio 4. I thought it was a friend taking the piss," he says. "But they asked me if I had seen The Sun that morning and whether I would take part in their show."

The story had ended up on the front page of The Sun, knocking the war in Iraq off the front page for the first time in days. Soon, seven television crews had parked in the school's front yard all wanting to cover the story. Newspapers from New Zealand to Thailand were reporting it. Halfpenny found himself in the eye of a media storm.

"It was incredible, I couldn't believe it," he recalls. "One or two reporters came really wanting to have a go. I think the tabloids wanted to pluck whatever story they could, saying I had banned conkers unless goggles were worn and they weren't interested in the truth. They just wanted to describe me as bonkers."

What had started as a headteacher's attempt to poke fun at health-and- safety laws ended up as a global news story with him being depicted, as Halfpenny describes it, as an overzealous health-and-safety "nutcase". But he is quick to defend the courting of the press, as long as people are aware that playing with fire sometimes means getting burned.

Use with care

"I would always try to get positive press; try to give the media stories, because they love stories," he adds. "If someone then had a go at our school, there would always be letters in the paper from people rushing to our defence.

"But you have to be aware that those who live by (the sword), die by it. You have to be careful."

According to PR experts, Halfpenny's approach, although a little unconventional, is one from which many heads can learn.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations, a membership organisation for PR practitioners, says it is important for heads to not be afraid of bad publicity because it can be used as an opportunity to build trust. Louise Jaggs, chair of the CIPR education and skills group, is clear that a head's primary concern should be whether the parents, staff and pupils get the wrong end of the stick.

"The focus should be on informing the parents with whatever communication you have," Jaggs says. "Text parents or send a letter home in their child's bag and post something up on the website. There isn't much point in worrying about the national press because that is not going to impact too much on how you attract people to the school.

"There is a fear factor when it comes to dealing with the press but a fear of bad publicity can be more damaging than the crisis itself. The key is to be prepared, don't give a knee-jerk reaction and if there is a real problem, take control of it."

Being prepared is worthwhile advice, but often the best tactic is to not take what the press says too seriously. As Rochford Primary's Howe discovered when the Daily Mail labelled him the "humbug headmaster", there is not much point in losing sleep over what the newspapers say.

"If you take yourself too seriously, it could get out of control," Howe says. "It's just par for the course for schools these days. (The media) leap on things, you're in the headlines for the day and then they move on.

"I would always want to tell the papers how good our Sats results are and how well we're doing in primary league tables, so you have to take the good with the bad."

Ten tips for crisis management

Mitigate the risks

Be prepared. You can't prepare for a crisis when you're already in the middle of one. Devise policies to try to prevent them and prepare a series of draft responses to draw on just in case.

Appoint an issues management team

Identify senior management andor governors who have the greatest understanding of your school, agree a process and appoint two or three trusted spokespeople.

Get to know your local media

Build a relationship with your local media and make yourself available to them so whenif an issue arises, they know they can come to you for candid, open comment.

After the event.

Don't be afraid

Fear of negative publicity - resulting in either total silence or ill- advised attempts to "cover up" - can be more damaging than the crisis itself.

Inform internal audiences

Make sure that all staff and governors are aware of what's happening and the process being followed.

Issue an initial statement

Your school may be judged as much on the quality and speed of its response to a crisis as on what actually caused it in the first place. Don't speculate or second guess the facts.

Act swiftly, decisively and responsibly

Once you have all the facts to hand, decide how best to communicate them - always using plain English. Acknowledge a problem where there is one; be candid, forthright and transparent.

Retain a sense of perspective

Is it a real crisis or a story based on misinformation?

Keep everyone informed

Having a central point of reference is easier to manage and update. Set up a landing page on your school's website to communicate the latest information.

If in doubt, bring in the experts

If you're nervous about dealing with a crisis, bring in the experts. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) offers a free, private matchmaker service (, which fits your requirements with suitably experienced CIPR members, all of whom operate to a strict code of conduct.

Email for further details.

Photo credit: Getty


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