Leadership - Be the head who hits the headlines

3rd January 2014 at 00:00
It's time to get news-savvy and trumpet your successes in the local press and media

Leadership teams focusing on the day-to-day oversight of classrooms and corridors could be forgiven for largely disregarding the needs of local media. Their schedules are full enough already without speaking to reporters, and the reputation of journalism is such that many schools fear being "caught out" when talking to the press. Worse still, those who do speak to the media are often labelled "attention-seekers" or "egotists".

But school leaders who ignore the media are not only missing a major marketing trick but also a chance to put systems in place and build relationships with reporters and editors that may pay dividends if a crisis occurs.

Communicating with the media takes time. Schools need someone who is able to gather information about likely stories from busy teachers and has the skills to present a coherent and lively narrative, including usable, jargon-free quotes. Gaining approval for copy from the same hectic teachers and senior leaders can take some determination, too.

Then there is the necessary task of ringing up reporters - ideally not on their press day - to "sell in" a story before you send it, which is far preferable to dispatching it unannounced and risking it being overlooked.

This may sound like a hassle but selling yourself to the local community is important: it breeds confidence in the school and makes the students proud to attend it. Talking to the media regularly also builds relationships that could be very useful in the event of a crisis, when you may need to ask for their assistance or find a way to get your side of the story across.

To handle media relations properly, a specific person has to be appointed to the role, whether that's an internal member of staff you train up or someone brought in on a freelance basis. This may seem like an extravagance but a dedicated press officer can work wonders. Here's what they can do.

Spotting news stories

Teachers are not journalists and rarely have the time to consider their projects from an outsider's perspective. For example, one head of science bought some near-extinct fruit tree varieties on a school trip to a botanic garden. The planting of these trees would have been a great photo opportunity in combination with a press release explaining the initiative's relevance to the science curriculum. But the chance was overlooked. Often it takes someone with an overview of the situation to realise the potential in a story, and to have the time and skills to sell it properly.

Photocall coordination

When teachers are busy with an event, the last thing they want to do is attend to a photographer's needs. This is why someone is required to fill the role of liaison: they can ensure that the professionals capture the shots they need without taking over.

Providing good, comprehensive copy

The better the copy, the more page space it's likely to command. Similarly, every topic is an opportunity to reiterate important messages about the school's core values. Having a specific person writing press releases means that they can learn what each publication wants and cater to its needs, increasing the chances of publication.

Fielding calls

By putting out stories you are advertising yourself as a source of comment, so schools need to prepare for such unsolicited attention and have a press officer ready to mediate and field calls. Cultivating such relationships will prove especially valuable if something unfortunate happens and you need well-disposed reporters open to your version of events.


The local press won't be able to get a photographer to a school every time there is something noteworthy going on, so it is necessary to have someone in-house who can take press-quality photographs. It is also a good idea to give the leaders of school trips a crash course in formally setting up shots, because casually taken snaps rarely work. For example, a recent Flanders battlefields tour by one school produced hundreds of images, of which only three were usable for subsequent press purposes, and then only after considerable digital manipulation.


Keeping an eye on and distributing articles is time-consuming but crucial. As the leader of one school I've worked with says: "It's great to celebrate our students' achievements and our teachers' creativity with press coverage." Enlarging articles and putting them on public display is a great fillip for students and staff; it impresses parents, too.

No doubt some staff will be initially nonplussed when faced with someone who has a press relations brief. A key part of the job is making solid in- school contacts as well as external ones among the local media. One sign that things are going well will be a growing stock of story suggestions as teachers get wise to the possibility of their hard work receiving the print and broadcast recognition it deserves.

Jerome Monahan is a teacher who has been a press officer for charities and financial institutions, and has fulfilled this function in schools where he has taught full-time.

Tales from new teachers

The problem

It was the first lesson with my class of 15-year-olds. We were looking at some of the core texts for their English course and I set them a challenge: could they find a word that connected these texts for every letter of the alphabet?

By the end of the lesson they had done well: we had a word for every letter except "v" and "w". Unfortunately, a particularly difficult boy saw this as an opportunity to try to embarrass me.

"I have some ideas, Miss," he shouted, smirking and triumphant. "Vagina and willy."

Silence followed. All eyes were on me. My mind froze. I could think of nothing clever to say back, so I ignored him.

I got to the end of the lesson, ignoring the student's persistent comments, such as "I'm not wrong, there are men and women in the books and what do men and women have?" He even showed me a drawing of a "willy" in his book. He had succeeded in making me look stupid and, ironically, more immature than him.

The options

One of the more senior female teachers took pity on me and explained that this type of thing was relatively common. She suggested that I ignore it.

My mentor advised that I begin the next lesson by explaining that in the context of the activity, the answers the boy gave were inappropriate and that I expected better of a group of 15-year-olds.

Another option came from a teacher close to my own age who had qualified a couple of years before. "Embarrass him back and show you are not embarrassed yourself. Confront him in front of others and ask him to explain himself - he'll never do it again after that."

The result

I chose the last option. I started by challenging the student to explain his answers from the previous lesson. I asked him to justify why his response would get him the grade expected of him in the exam, and made him show the class his drawing and explain it.

Of course he couldn't. He cringed throughout, mumbling and seemingly on the verge of running away. The other students looked on in horror.

I don't have problems with students trying to embarrass me any more. They know the comeback will be much worse for them.

The writer is an English teacher in her first year of teaching. She is based in Scotland.

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