Getting a Fresh Start with Media

by Roseann St. Aubin, Communications Director, Milwaukee Public Schools

Summer recess may be the perfect time to assess key relationships and decide how to make them better. Ask yourself-is it time for a fresh start with reporters?

Reporters ask the questions that our students’ parents would ask, if our parents only knew who to call. Learning how to make the best use of the conduit that reporters represent can gain us ground with our families.

Consider starting the school year with an individual briefing with each of the reporters who cover you most.

The briefing could take the form of a deskside chat, where you as a district administrator, offer to visit the reporter in her office, or invite the reporter to your work setting. Allow the discussion to be free-ranging. Use the setting to explain initiatives on which you will focus for the year, and why you see them as critical.

Not interested in a one-on-one approach? Schedule a reporters’ or editors’ roundtable. Picture a roundtable event as a gathering of news people with your district’s senior staff members. Suggest two or three topics and provide information on those topics, but allow the conversation to roam where it will. The informality of this setting will stand in sharp contrast to a formal news conference on one topic, and may help you get a gauge on how news professionals think and interact – or how they will view a coming initiative. Milwaukee Public Schools used an editors’ roundtable before announcing its strategic planning process, and fielded questions critical to public acceptance of the effort.

Make use of invitations to attend editorial board briefings that many news organizations host on regular intervals. These invitations signal a news organization,s readiness to weigh in on an issue in an editorial statement for the morning paper, and also signals their willingness to hear your thoughts before they decide their stance.

As you venture into deeper relationships with reporters, you may be tempted to share more information than you previously would have. Know what the rules are. The rules that govern what is on or off the record are the rules you negotiate with the reporter. Establish these at the start of the interview. “On the record” means you can be quoted directly in the story by name. “On background” means information may be attributed to its source in some way, either by occupation or some other description, but not by name.

“Off the record” means the information you provide is not to be used at all in the story. Be careful about the use of this rule. If you choose to go off the record, make sure to say it before you make the statement, NOT AFTER. But a word to the wise-if you really don’t want to read it in the paper or see it on television, don’t say it at all!

Be certain the news person knows the district’s rules in putting the story together. Explain the limitations you have in sharing information from student records. Provide access to students only after there’s been sign-off from the student’s parents or guardians. In the Milwaukee Public Schools district, we created release forms for news media coverage and translated the forms from English to Spanish and Hmong. Our parents decide who takes pictures of their children, or interviews them for a story.

Do not expect a chance to review an article or see a story before it runs. And – make it a rule to give feedback on stories. Did the reporter get something wrong? He deserves the chance to set the record straight, and you want to be certain that the error is not repeated in future stories. Don’t be afraid to ask for a correction. By the same token, give praise when the story was on the mark. Media representatives like knowing their efforts were appreciated.

Vow this year never to ignore phone calls, say “no comment,” or state something in anger or in haste. Vow to remember to share information with staff, parents and your other important stakeholders before they see it in the newspaper or on TV. It may be time for a fresh start all around, and it’s best to resolve that now – before the beginning of a new school year.

About the author

The Wisconsin School Public Relations Association (WSPRA) is a professional association representing schools, school districts, educational associations, consulting agencies and organizations. WSPRA is a state affiliate of the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA). 4797 HAYES ROAD | SUITE 103 | MADISON, WI 53704 | PHONE: 608-241-0300 | WSPRA@AWSA.ORG