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Pawlas on PR for Principals...

Building Relationships
With the Media


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An important part of every principal's job is telling the school's story to the community. Working constructively with the media is a vitally important way to do that. So it follows that developing solid relationships with the media should be a strategy that is part of every school principal's overall communication plan.

REPORTERS - YOUR ALLIES

Members of the news media are professionals who, like hard-working principals, understand that life is one deadline after another. You are both interested in getting out fair and unbiased information about what's going on in schools in your community. Recognizing that common ground is a first giant step toward developing a strong relationship with the media.

Many principals, this one included, work hard to get to know on a first-name basis the reporters who cover our schools. That's not always easy. I recall, for example, one reporter who had just been assigned the education beat on a local newspaper. He had not even been in a school since he graduated from high school quite a few years before. So I invited him to visit my school, to take a morning tour of the campus, to enjoy lunch with third-grade students, and to chat with teachers, support staff, and parent volunteers. In each of the experiences he had that day, that reporter saw story ideas. For instance, he wrote about

  • our Math Hall of Fame activity, which focused on all students completing math-fact tests within timed limits. Those who achieved perfect scores received wallet-sized Math hall of Fame membership cards and had their names added to charts displayed near the main office.
  • our school's focus on writing. The reporter had witnessed some of the weekly essays all students wrote to develop their writing skills.
  • the purpose and benefits of the Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) time we scheduled at the end of each and every school day.
  • why parents and senior citizens volunteered at the school.
  • how seven pairs of twins in our school had fun confusing their teachers and the principal.

    Each of those news articles was well received by the school's parents and support community. As the principal, I made certain that I followed up with a thank-you telephone call and a thank-you card. I thanked the reporter for sharing news about the school programs that are important to us and for presenting the stories in fair and interesting ways.

    The reason for telling that story is quite simple: Invite your local reporters into your schools. It gives you a tremendous opportunity to show off the things you think are important. Often, you don't need to do more than that. Just leave it to the reporter, who is an experienced professional -- whose job is to "look for the stories" that are worth telling.

    MAINTAINING GOOD RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE MEDIA

    [content block] Maintaining a healthy relationship with reporters is essential. All good school-reporter relationships can be traced to "the proper care and feeding of news to reporters." Following are just a few guidelines I often share to help principals establish solid relationships with members of the media:

  • Return calls from reporters. Principals who want to get the good news about their schools into the local press make it a point to return phone messages left by members of the media.
  • Help the reporter meet deadlines. A reporter is rushed because news is perishable; it must be written to meet specific deadlines, so your job is to help the reporter meet the deadline.
  • Understand the job of the reporter. Don't blame reporters for things they don't control. The length of a story, or whether it is used at all, is determined by others on staff.
  • Provide feedback. If you like what the reporter did, let her or him know it. If you have a follow-up comment or a complaint, go directly to the reporter. Just as you want parents to contact you with concerns before they go to the superintendent or the board of ed, always call the reporter first with any concerns.
  • Avoid giving out information that is difficult to interpret or understand. Be sure you present information and data in terms a non-educator can understand. Avoid jargon. Be honest and focus on the facts.

    In all of my personal experiences with the news media, which have been reinforced by other principal colleagues, I found that being proactive -- sharing potential news stories that cast my school in a positive light -- almost always led to good coverage. I've also found, and others have confirmed, that we get great coverage when we are polite, cooperative, and factual in our dealings with reporters. That goes for electronic media as well as print.

    A FEW MORE TIPS

    Following are a few more suggestions that might help you as you work to establish and maintain relations with the media:

  • Be honest and sincere in giving reporters the facts. Never say, "No comment."
  • Give the same courtesies to reporters that you extend to any other visitors.
  • Piggyback stories whenever you can. For example, remember how the reporter referred to earlier in this column used a single school visit to develop several articles that focused on activities for improving students' skills in the academic areas of math, writing, and reading?
  • Don't wait until the last minute to invite the media. Give them advance notice of a noteworthy event. That will help them work it into their busy schedules.
  • Never ask a reporter to show you the story before it is published or to return photographs.
  • Share a copy of your school's "pride statements" (see August's Pawlas on PR column, Share the Pride: Six Statements of Pride Get Year Off to a Great Start). They could be great sources for possible news stories.

    If you do two things as a principal -- if you work hard to provide quality learning opportunities for all of your students and if you are proactive, open, honest, and accessible to reporters -- you will get in return the positive media coverage your school deserves.

    NEXT TIME: The Benefits of Being an MBWA (Management By Walking Around) Principal

    Article by George Pawlas
    Copyright Education World 2005

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