Would You Like to Make a Statement?

What should school leaders do when a reporter is at their door?

By: Kelly McBride

“Hi, this is Larry Jones from XYZ paper and I would like to ask you a few questions about allegations of bullying by teachers at your school.”

“Good morning. This is Sarah Brown from station ABC. What can you tell me about the decline in your students’ standardized test scores last year?”

If you are a school administrator and you haven’t already been approached by a reporter from the local media, you very well could be. And while your first reaction to media questions—regardless of the topic—may be to mutter “no comment” and move on, the first rule of thumb when dealing with reporters is never to say “no comment.”

So what should you do when a reporter comes calling? Be prepared long before you get the call or hear the knock on the door.

First Things First

The first key to dealing effectively with the media is establishing a solid relationship. If you’re there for them in bad times, they’ll be there for you in good times.

Early in the school year, invite newspaper, television, and radio reporters to meet with you. Discuss your education philosophy, your school vision and goals, advances in the curriculum. Remember, they are not educators, so explain acronyms and give them an overview of education budgets, contracts, and the negotiation process. The more they understand, the less likely they will be to misquote or skewer you with adversarial copy.

That’s not to say they won’t report negative information. Their expectations are quite different from yours. They have a story to tell. But if you have a good relationship, they’ll be more willing to hear your side first.

Key Messaging

Before you agree to any interviews, ask the reporters who they are, whom they represent, the topic of the interview, how much time they expect the interview to take, and who else is being contacted about the topic. Remember that you are in charge of the interview and you may terminate the interview (in a professional manner) should it go outside the boundaries you set—yes, the boundaries you set.

So, what do you say? Practice by anticipating questions, preparing your answers (but not memorizing them), having key facts readily available, and using key messages. Key messages are like mission statements: short, to the point, and reflecting positively on your district or school. Even in a tense situation, weave these messages into your statements.

For example, let’s say your key message is your school’s commitment to supporting the community through high-quality education. A reporter asks you, “Can you confirm that you are cutting four teachers from next year’s budget?”

Here’s your key message: “We are currently investigating ways to reduce our budget; however, please remember that we are committed to promoting a high quality of life in our community by educating our children—that’s our priority.”

You’re On

With the basics in mind, let’s look at several scenarios and some tips for making every interview a success.

Tip #1: Have a good administrative assistant. When I worked in a K–12 district, I was blessed to have an administrative assistant who recognized reporters’ voices when they called. When they asked to speak to me, she said without hesitation: “I’m sorry, she’s not in her office right now. Can I tell her what this is about?” Almost every reporter shared the reason for the call, providing me ample time to prepare my response or check with other experts in our district.

Tip #2: Clear your desk. When preparing for a telephone interview, clear your desk. If you have papers and calendars in front of you and a cell phone that’s buzzing with a text from your spouse, you’re not paying attention to the interview and may say something you didn’t mean to say.

If you are conducting a face-to-face interview in your office, in addition to clearing off your desk, close emails and documents on your computer screen. That letter, memo, or email open on the computer behind you should be for your eyes only.

Tip #3: Don’t be pressured by silence. That’s some reporters’ secret weapon—getting interviewees to talk through the “pregnant pause.” The reporter hopes you will find the silence uncomfortable and will fill it with information you hadn’t intended to disclose. Answer the question and say no more! As you wind down the interview, summarize and restate your points.

Tip #4: Don’t ever speak off the record. Journalists are supposed to respect the privacy of an off-the-record remark, but remember that they want the news, they want to lead over other media, and they may use whatever you say—on and off the record.

Tip #5: Relax and maintain composure. When doing a telephone interview, sit up straight and put both feet flat on the floor. Why? When you sit up straight, your voice is stronger and you sound more in command. And that’s what you want to do: be in command of the interview.

For a stand-up interview, keep your hands out of your pockets and don’t cross your arms in front of you. Instead, place your hands behind your back and interlock your fingers. This will not only make your posture better, but it will also give you a hidden outlet for nervousness or anger.

Tip #6. Have a crisis communication plan. Each of you will be involved with a crisis situation at some time in your career, and the last thing on your mind should be dealing with the media. Your district administration should designate someone to be the spokesperson. This person will be trained to deal with the media effectively. If, however, you do find yourself facing the media:

  • Keep your messages simple, direct, and don’t speculate.
  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” But follow that up with, “but I’ll find out and get the answer to you by.”

By following these tips, you will be on your way to a much better relationship with the members of your press and you’ll know just want to say.

Kelly McBride is an assistant professor of public relations at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. She is the former director of communications for a K–12 school district in Pennsylvania.  kamcbride@vt.edu

Published in AMLE Magazine, November 2014.

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2 comments on article "Would You Like to Make a Statement?"

Hey Kelly, I loved reading your article about how to approach the media from a teacher/administrator point of few. I am currently studying to become a secondary education teacher and one day to become a principal. This is the first time I have ever seen someone write about how to approach the media and answer questions as an educator and it is nice to get some tips to help out for the future. The first thing that really stood out was never saying no comment to the media. In my opinion before reading this I saw nothing wrong with saying no comment, but after reading the article I realized it is always important to be prepared if you might be asked questions. Also it was nice to see some six easy steps to follow to help with speaking to the media. 1. Have a good administrative assistant, 2. Clear your desk, 3. Don’t be pressured by silence, 4. Don’t ever speak off the record, 5. Relax and maintain composure, 6. Have a crisis communication plan. As steps might seem simple and easy, it might not be that way to everyone. It is always good to have a plan, especially in education and dealing with our students. But there will come a time when you might have to talk to the media and this is a great article to help with the future. Thanks!

2/23/2015 1:09 PM

Hi Kelly! I enjoyed reading your article about how to properly approach media. I am currently studying Secondary Education and will be starting my student teaching soon. I do not see myself talking to the media in the near future due to my position as a student teacher, however I feel that many of your approaches will work for more than the media. I can see myself using many of your approaches when talking to parents. As a beginning teacher, this is something I will not have any experience with this and many of your six tips apply to this. For example, tip #5 where you mention to relax and maintain composure. I think we can all connect to that time where we say "I don't know what to do with my hands". I believe that your behind that back technique is a great approach to make both yourself and the person you are talking to comfortable. Also, tip #6 caught my attention. It is hard to realize now, in my position as a student, that someday I will in fact need to speak with the media over a crisis situation. When this time comes, it will be difficult to think of something to say. By having a statement in mind before the situation happens could put yourself in a better position. Thanks for the insight!

2/23/2015 9:08 PM

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