By Brad Hughes
KSBA Member Support Services Director
Most of us involved in school communications have heard the following time and again: “We can’t get our local media to report the good news about our schools. They’re only interested in the negative.”
Do you feel local newspaper, radio and/or television reporters and editors couldn’t care less about the positive achievements in your schools? Are you of the opinion that only criticism, problems, low test scores and personnel controversies are newsworthy to the decision makers in your mainstream media?
Let’s turn those questions around.
Have you taken a hard look at the quality of effort your district makes to earn “good press?”
For this column, I conducted a most unscientific survey of the members of the Kentucky School Public Relations Association. I asked them to guesstimate the percentage (10, 25, 50, 100 percent) of positive local stories that were generated by something the district did, such as a news release, a call to a reporter, a board meeting presentation or a special event.
Of course, none honestly claimed a 100 percent positive response, although a few proclaimed something just short of that mark. But seven in 10 of those responding – including some superintendents – felt at least 75 percent of the good news stories were directly attributable to district actions.
I think the basis for those assessments is worthy of passing along.
Relationships, flexibility and being relentless
It’s no surprise that many of the respondents put the issue of getting positive news stories squarely as a return on investment of effort made to build a connection with those in the media.
“The most important piece of the puzzle is developing positive relationships with your local media contacts,” said Scarlet Shoemaker, Greenup County Schools public information officer. “When contacting media for a story, be prepared. Providing the information yourself helps you control the message (usually).”
Debra Vance, Covington Independent Schools director of communications and equity, thinks most of the good news stories for her district are self-generated. “With the shortage of reporters, it’s somewhat unusual that reporters go ‘looking for’ news stories. My motto here is ‘If we don’t tell our story, who will?’” she said.
Paul Schaumburg, Graves County Schools community relations director, tries to make it as easy as possible for reporters to use his offerings. “Ready-to-go material is especially helpful to understaffed media,” he said. “Internet social media has influenced our regional media into featuring neighbor news as well and they carry many of our stories. I think that if these stories have substance, rather than fluff, they can go a long way in projecting a positive image and message.”
Leslie Peek, Bowling Green Independent Schools public relations coordinator, works in a media-intense community. “With the newspaper, I do my best to keep the reporter busy with events and activities. She will even call me when she needs a story. With radio and TV…I will have someone accessible to reporters (who then) will in turn cover something like an academic celebration in a school. I’m also ALWAYS available when not-so-positive things happen.”
Several respondents shared tips on what they do to get the good news into print and on the air.
“I try to send a succinct ‘This Week at Paducah Public Schools’ e-mail to media outlets weekly,” said Paducah Independent Schools Public Relations Officer Wayne Walden, “letting them know what we’ve got going on that might make stories or photo ops. Sometimes, when it’s a slow news day, they will pick up some of those events.”
Henderson County Schools Community Outreach Director Cindy Williams stays very involved with a local radio station.
“I record announcements each week of the activities and events taking place in our schools. Announcements are aired several times,” she said. “Several school staff members have been guests for a morning show (which) gives the listener the opportunity to call in to ask questions.”
Alan Reed, Adair County Schools director of federal programs and media relations, said at least 10 percent of his news releases are done to meet an expectation of transparency. “While some of these stories might score low on an emotional index, I know (from feedback) that the public genuinely appreciates our efforts to simply inform them,” he said.
Campbell County Schools Director of School and Community Relations Juli Hale summed up the thoughts of several respondents that positive media coverage goes back to what schools put into the effort. “Reporters are not omniscient. They do not know something good happened simply because it happened. It only becomes news when the reporters are told about those good things so they can report on it,” she said.
The Last Word
School leaders trying to explain the No Child Left Behind law’s Adequate Yearly Progress results have labored to explain that every year is different, often changing with a new class of students. That same assessment is true from newspaper to broadcast outlet, publisher to reporter: some will reject positive releases as puffery; others will carry them to readers, listeners and viewers almost word for word.
What doesn’t change is the long-term impact of making the effort to put the information into the hands of those media decision makers. In short, if you don’t work at telling your good school news to the news media, you’ll have little success sharing your stories through the media.
And that’s a message worth getting out.