Keep smiling as you spin the line that says your college is blameless

24th October 2008 at 01:00

Sad to say but the mass media look upon FE as a sort of educational Belgium - wet, flat and very boring. There are times, though, when they do take notice. Invariably, these are bad times. Scandals, bankruptcies and murders are news; record enrolments on plumbing courses rather less so.

How colleges respond is a bit of a lottery. Some no doubt have publicity departments that purr like well-oiled machines. In others, the principal just runs around doing his famous "rabbit in headlights" impersonation.

But, as with everything these days, there is a course to help you deal with the problem. In this instance, it's the pompously titled Certificate in Leadership for Reputation, run by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Association of Colleges. They take FE managers away for three days and turn them into (Fleet) street-smart, media-savvy operators.

Actually, the media bit only accounts for one day, but participants get the chance to experience what it's like to be in the firing line, with a grilling from a real TV reporter about an imaginary college disaster.

In these hard times, though, some principals might think twice before stumping up the Pounds 1,000-plus fee. Instead, they might like to sign up to the Jones guide, which costs nothing and can be found in the paragraphs that follow.

First off, the prepared principal should consider from which direction threats to the college's reputation are likely to come. As in marriage, most are likely to revolve around money or sex. But there is a third culprit: Ofsted. The nightmare scenario is all three arriving at once. Let's say the finance director and a student run off to Ibiza with a college credit card and Ofsted in hot pursuit. What do you do?

For many, the first thought will be to pretend it isn't happening. This is known as the tin-hat solution. You slam shut the office door, refuse to take calls and put out a brief statement that effectively says "No comment".

Bad move. Because however tight-lipped you remain, the media won't simply shut up shop and go home. Instead, they'll have a field day speculating on what you have to hide.

Just because you say nothing doesn't mean that nothing will be said. First up will be your regular sparring partner, the branch secretary of the University and College Union. You might think the sexual peccadilloes of the head of finance are nothing to do with the union, but they won't see it that way. Straight off, they'll put out a six-page communique that can be summed up in four words: it's all your fault. If only you had allowed a union rep to sit on the senior staff appointments committee, this would never have happened.

And it's not only the union. These days most colleges are chock-a-block with malcontents. You can't pay lecturers so little for so long and expect them to be happy. Few will put their heads above the parapet, but safe in the anonymity of "a lecturer who preferred not to be named", who knows what they'll say?

So there's nothing else for it but to tough it out. But how? One model you might want to consider is the Joe Kinnear "Grab `em by the balls and start squeezing" approach. For those who don't follow football, Mr Kinnear is the latest in a long line of managers at Newcastle United FC. Upset by media comments on his performance recently, he called a press conference only to spend the best part of an hour lambasting the assembled hacks with what might euphemistically be termed "industrial" language.

It's hard to say how well this worked for Joe. It certainly got him noticed. But pouring all the worst swear words you can think of over the heads of the people who are going to be writing about you is a high-risk strategy.

If you feel you must strike an aggressive pose, it might be better to follow the Ann WiddecombeJohn Reid line. Both are past masters of the "attack is the best form of defence" school of media relations. This involves questioning the question, chiding the interviewer and generally adopting a fearsome demeanour. You are never openly rude, never lose your cool. Instead, you constantly give the impression that if the interviewer continues with this absurd line of questioning, it might just tip you over.

Not everyone can carry this off, however. Ultimately, the best bet - and you can be sure that they teach this on the course - is the "Look at me, I'm such an open, nice guy" method. Tony Blair is your model here, as is David "call me Dave" Cameron.

This doesn't mean spilling the beans, as your interlocutor would like you to. Far from it. The touchy-feely persona is just a veneer. Underneath, you are every bit as steely as Ms Widdecombe.

You must also set the agenda. In other words, follow the line that all successful politicians take and answer not the question you are asked, but the one you'd like to be asked.

Here's how it goes. "Principal, doesn't the elopement of the finance director and the student indicate a certain moral laxity about your management style?"

First off, look the reporter in the eye and smile. Then turn to the camera and smile at that too. "Call me Dave," you say. "And, yes, this really is an unfortunate episode. But students and their parents can be reassured that a full and vigorous investigation is already under way in which no stone will be left unturned.

"Nevertheless," you add, this time with a particularly winning smile, "the finance director's `emergency holiday' has to be viewed against the fact that enrolments are at record heights, a new centre of vocational excellence is about to open, and last year the college turned in its best ever Btec results ."

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