When journalists come to doorstep

29th April 2005 at 01:00
once worked in a school where a disaffected pupil obtained a job on the local newspaper as a trainee journalist. His relationship with senior staff had been stormy and he came under suspicion when a story about the school, featuring a prominent photograph of the headteacher, appeared alongside another item with the headline: "Beware the local conman".

The juxtaposition of the two stories caused considerable merriment among pupils and the relevant page was even posted (briefly) on the staff notice-board. Not surprisingly, the reaction of the head made some of Prince Charles's recent press gaffes seem mild by comparison.

Schools nowadays are much more alert to the importance of press coverage and professional responses to media enquiries than they used to be. There are several reasons for this. Inspection reports are public documents and summaries of them are often given in the local press. Sometimes the coverage is unbalanced and even unfair. While an HMIE report may be generally positive, it is often the one or two negative features that are given prominence - and these may be beyond the immediate control of the school itself, such as the state of buildings.

Again, most schools, especially secondary schools, have to deal with cases of bullying, drug taking, vandalism and unruly behaviour, which can attract unwelcome publicity. They make easy headlines for a few days, though the long-term damage to the school's reputation can be considerable.

Good headteacher training programmes now include advice on how to deal with media interest, and efficient local authorities provide back-up through their public relations departments.

Perhaps the most difficult circumstances to deal with are those that involve major incidents leading to the serious injury or death of pupils.

When such events occur, the headteacher is immediately in the front line and is expected to respond appropriately, finding the right words to convey sympathy to distressed or grieving parents and support to other pupils. An ill-chosen phrase, especially if caught on camera, is what is remembered rather than the genuine feeling that may have been intended.

It is not only headteachers who need to be alert to these issues. All staff can find themselves subject to the wrong kind of attention. The tabloid press are extremely adept at putting together negative reports based on remarks taken out of context, unattributed comments (real or imaginary) and indiscretions uttered on informal social occasions. Pupils, too, can be encouraged to say things that can be turned into damaging "quotes".

So what can schools do in the face of such potential pitfalls? First, they can ensure that stories of achievement and success are communicated to the media. While many of these will not see the light of day, the process will help to establish contact with local journalists. The personal touch can often be mutually helpful when it comes to difficult cases.

Second, when something untoward does occur, it is often better to issue a statement (agreed with the local authority) rather than appear evasive and unwilling to answer questions. Camera shots of people dodging for cover always look bad.

Third, there is an argument for having a contingency plan based on a simulated emergency. What media issues might arise in the case of a fire, a fatality, an outbreak of infection? Which members of the senior management team should assume which roles (responding to parents, reassuring staff and pupils, holding press briefings)? There can be no guarantee that such measures will ensure the kind of coverage that might be wished. But they are surely better than leaving things entirely to chance.

Walter Humes is professor of education at Aberdeen University.

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