Sleeping with the editor won't get you anywhere

14th February 1997 at 00:00
You need a strategy to get the best coverage in the local media.

Gareth Weekes suggests one.

It wasn't until my wife stopped speaking to me that I realised the true extent of the gulf in understanding between schools and the local media. She is a primary teacher whose school emerged triumphant from the trauma of an Office for Standards in Education inspection. I was editor of the local newspaper. In theory you could not hope for circumstances more likely to produce good publicity.

In fact it went wrong. The school felt we gave a lacklustre account of an overwhelmingly positive OFSTED report. The paper thought the inclusion of a mildly critical paragraph made it a balanced and generally positive summary and couldn't understand what the fuss was about.

The moral of this story, without going into the gory details, is that even if you sleep with the editor you cannot control the message the media conveys. But there are simple steps schools can take to influence that message and improve their local image.

"Why bother?" seems a fair question, given the workload of the average head. The answer can be found almost any day of the week in the national press, whose incessant campaign to denigrate schools has been taken up by politicians on all sides.

Slagging-off our "failing" schools is a safe pastime guaranteed to demonstrate a politician's virility, but it is only safe because schools are such soft targets. They rarely bite back. Headteachers, such formidable creatures in the eyes of pupils, turn out on the whole to be wimps.

So, in the absence of a spirited defence, the image of schools as portrayed in the national media is dire. Bearing little resemblance to parents' personal experience of local schools, at least outside the inner-cities, it is nevertheless bound to erode their respect.

Few heads have realised that in the place where public opinion counts most - their catchment area - many more people read the local press than the nationals, and what's more they believe it.

Three out of four adults read a local rag. Not even The Sun comes near that. The Daily Mail, which strikes such terror into school staffrooms, can muster only 15 per cent in a prime target-area like Bournemouth.

Schools tend to remember only their bad experiences with the local media, and with some reason. Critical local publicity is seen by the people who matter -parents - and can be far more damaging than a daft story in a national tabloid.

Yet the space allocated by local papers to positive coverage of schools far outweighs the negative. They have a hunger for stories about local people and institutions, a fact which a few switched-on schools exploit with ruthless efficiency. Schools that shy away from the local media ignore an opportunity to achieve huge amounts of free advertising.

The one-day courses I now run to help schools get the best out of the local media cannot be summarised in a few hundred words, but here are a few pointers:

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