Trainees should be made aware of media glare

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Over the 25 years that I dealt with schools as a press officer, I was constantly struck by the fact that teachers didn't know much about the media, so when the press came sniffing around a particular school, there was often panic.

Of course, the basic approach is to get in touch with your council press office and let trained media officers handle matters for you. But my job would have been much easier if teachers, from the newly-qualified to heads, had been given some basic awareness of media relations. I believe it should be included in basic teacher education at its earliest stages.

That's because the media is fascinated by education. Note how a school bus crash, irate parents demanding rights, league tables, school closures and errant teachers all hit the headlines. But, sadly, many teachers seem to believe that what goes on in a school should be private, and the arrival of the media can come as a shock.

Add, at secondary, teenage hormones, schools dealing with all the ills of contemporary society from marital break-up to drugs and alcohol, and you begin to realise that, as places where emotions abound, stories are generated. It is vital for teachers to be aware that the remark they make to a parent or pupil, often innocently, or the action they take, can become the splash in the local or national press tomorrow.

Then there's the lack of understanding of what makes a good story itself. Far too many schools wander off to their local paper without any idea of deadlines, word counts or what makes a story, and then wonder why they never make the news in a positive sense. I've seen a headteacher tell a new teacher that they're now the school's press officer and, without any training, expect them to produce stories for the local press.

The result is usually missed deadlines, woefully-produced press releases and a plethora of material on raising money for charity, rather than describing the curriculum in action, which is exactly what schools need to pitch in the media.

And that's why just a small input at initial teacher education level would make all the difference. Forget about the sort of media training that far too many private PR companies offer, with interviews before a camera in a crisis: what's needed is a basic awareness of what the media is, what it does and how it relates to schools and education.

Students also need to know that each council has a press office, to understand the basics of writing a press release and to spot a good story that illustrates education in action. The aim is to enhance the reputation of a school.

The problem usually is, however, that a teacher, often doing great things that deserve media exposure, does not recognise the news potential. So much that would enhance the reputation of schools, teachers, support staff and education authorities, never sees the light of day.

The benefits in crises are enormous, with staff having a basic awareness of what the media may be looking for, how it goes about its business, who speaks on behalf of the school and council and how best to manage the situation. Experience tells me that a crisis in a school becomes much harder to manage if media relations are not handled professionally. The necessary skills should not, at best, be picked up on the job or, at worst, ignored at a time when the media is finding education more fascinating than ever.

Hugh Dougherty is a retired education press officer and is now a freelance journalist and media trainer.

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