How to build a relationship with your local press.

I’ve known my blogging mentor, MJ, since before she was born and I’ve been keen for us to write something together. My profession is School Business Leader, her profession is News Journalist and Broadcaster. Do these worlds ever collide? Absolutely!

Promotion of a school, of whatever phase, in the local media can really help in maintaining (or growing) admission numbers by presenting an ethos to their community,  informing neighbours of activities and building relationships between young people, other demographics and also the local job market.

But even before GDPR, for the SBL, journalism can be a scary world and many schools view their local media with suspicion, holding them at arms length and depriving the school and students of the opportunity to shout about the excellent work they are doing.

Of course, I accept that this is often not without justification. We have been working hard at my school to build a relationship with our local newspaper and, we thought, succeeding until last month when there was a big front page splash telling how a local party venue for teenagers had recently been vandalised by students from a local school. The article did not publish the name of the school in question but did point out that students from my school would be hosting a party at the venue in the near future! A quick glance at the page would have given the casual reader the impression that our students were responsible.

So…MJ has agreed to give me and us some tips on building a relationship with your local paper and its journalists. Over to you MJ…

…Both my parents work in a school, which I hope makes me a little more compassionate when I have to ring a local school about a difficult story. What if it was my mother or father taking the call? I’d never want to cause them any unnecessary stress, so I try and be as understanding, friendly, and professional as possible.

Switching the scenario, I imagine my parents would also think of me if they had to talk to a journalist from their local paper. They would understand, more than someone without a reporter in the family, that they’re only doing their job. I know they’d want to be as helpful as they can.

But for some people, it’s quite different. Maybe they’ve never met a journalist. Maybe they think the press are not to be trusted. We read a lot about ‘fake news’ and see so many tabloid newspapers spreading ‘clickbait’ that many of us have lost our faith in the media.

Which is all the more reason to build up a good working relationship with your local journalist, and hopefully meeting them will change your perspective.

For me, local news is all about the community. I love my Wolverhampton community (where I work as a news reporter). I love the spirit, the support for each other, and hearing everybody’s stories. I love to meet people, get involved with local events and visit my local schools…I’m sure your local reporter feels exactly the same.

But if you’re unsure where to start with meeting, and building your schools relationship, with the press, I’ve listed a few points I think are particularly important:

  • Get in touch – if you don’t know who they are already, Google your local newspapers (there may be more than one), and also your local radio and television station. Give them a call and introduce yourself as the media contact (if that’s you) at the school. Say you’d like to speak to either the education reporter or, if they don’t have one, the journalist who covers the local area your school is based in. Ask if they would like a tour of the school sometime and to meet you for a cup of tea and a chat. That way, you can meet face to face, get to know them, and swap contact details. You can also ask what sort of stories they’re interested in, the best way to get your information published with them, and tell them about any exciting goings-ons at the school. Perhaps introduce them to the headteacher if he or she is available.
  • Stay in touch – once you’ve made that contact, keep it. Even if it means a friendly email a couple of times a month with news of a charity bake sale, or to ask if they have a photographer free to take a picture of the annual school musical. Never think that a story is too small. If in doubt, just pick up the phone.
  • Remember deadlines – if a reporter gets in touch to, for example, ask the headteacher for a comment about introducing unisex toilets in schools, always remember to find out the print/radio/TV deadline. It may be 24 hours, it may be two hours. Be honest and upfront about whether you can meet it, but always try to. If you think you’re going to struggle (e.g  because the headteacher is in a meeting all afternoon) let the reporter know and perhaps name another member of senior staff who is available. This sort of help goes a long way and lets the reporter know you really do want to assist them.
  • Be friendly – I know people are under immense pressure at work, but I always wonder why some media contacts I have cannot just be a tiny bit friendlier. Maybe they think I’m always out to get them? (I’m not, I promise).
  • Don’t panic! – The worst has happened. A student has gone missing, a parent has called the newspaper with a lengthy complaint about the new uniform policy, or the school had to be evacuated and passers-by have phoned to let the media know. If something big happens, try not to hope a journalist won’t call you – they will. Be prepared. If you already know the situation, try and get a statement ready and signed off in advance. If you are struggling to get to the bottom of what’s going on, just be honest and tell the reporter you are looking into it and will get back to them as soon as you have the facts. My biggest pet hate is when I phone to ask about a situation and I hear ‘this isn’t a story so I don’t know why you’re ringing’. If it’s in the public interest or if people are going to wonder and ask questions – it’s a story.

It really does pay to have a good relationship between the local media and your school. The best school relationships I have are the ones who send me pictures of their fundraising work, inspiring student stories, and news of their next school play – which I happily put in the paper. In return, when I have a complex issue I need a school’s view on, they are only too willing to help me out…

…Thanks MJ. Excellent tips. Despite our recent setback, I know that my schools relationship with our local media is mutually beneficial in the long term and we shall keep going.

We’d both love to hear your experiences, how your school works with your local media and MJ is happy to answer any questions.

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