Would You Like to Make a Statement?

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

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“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.