An interview with reporter and blogger Janet Steffenhagen
A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of boards connecting with their communities. One of the most effective ways to shine a light on what is happening in your school district is through your local media. Unfortunately, for many boards the coverage they get is either a boring little snippet on the last board meeting or something controversial that puts the district in a negative light. But there’s a lot more happening in your district than this, so how can you get the good news out?
Janet Steffenhagen is widely known for her 16 years of work as a reporter and blogger for the Vancouver Sun. Her education blog The Report Card was followed by thousands. If there was an education story to be told – good or bad – Janet would shine a light on it. Janet is now a freelance writer who is still passionate about education issues. So who better to reflect on how boards can build a proactive relationship with media?
Question 1: What are some proactive things a board can do to get the media’s attention?
First, identify and build relationships with the reporters who cover education issues in and around your community for print, broadcast and online news outlets. The board chair, or a designate, should send those reporters a short email signalling interest in helping them with education coverage and providing contact information, including a cell phone number, an email address and, if possible, a username for Twitter. If there is no response, follow up a few days later with a telephone call. Even better, offer a solid news tip. (Perhaps one related to current events, such as your district’s efforts to prepare for an influx of Syrian refugees? Or maybe your board is grappling with an issue that might affect other boards as well? Or your superintendent has noticed a trend that would be of interest beyond a single school?)
Don’t be discouraged if there is not immediate action. Reporters, even those with a beat, face a lot of demands from editors and can’t always pursue immediately the stories they want.
Next, make sure you are available when reporters call. The trustees who get the most media attention in this province not only have something to say, but they also understand deadlines and respond to reporters quickly – any day of the week.
If you use Twitter, follow the journalists who write about education, retweet any of their posts that interest you and join the discussion. If you are tweeting about an issue that you think is newsworthy, tag them in those tweets. Giving a favour is the best way to receive one.
Question 2: Rather than working proactively with the media some trustees seem to actively shun reporters. Why do you think that is?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself a lot over the years. I think some people are afraid of being misquoted or they’re worried the reporter is not being straight with them about the story’s direction. That’s why it’s important to develop good relationships from the start. If you’re seriously worried about being misquoted, tape the interview yourself. That might put your mind at ease. Furthermore, if you’re unhappy with the way your views are summarized by the reporter, you can review the tape and consider how you might improve your message next time. You should also let the reporter know that you were unhappy with the way your information was presented, but be polite. It might have been a mistake or it might have been a misunderstanding, but it’s highly unlikely there was an intention to skewer you. If handled well, such discussions can lead to better communications next time.
I suspect there are also some trustees who simply don’t understand why it is important to talk to the media or feel they don’t have the time. I would urge them to read the first post on this blog titled You Really Need to Get Out More Often.
Question 3: Of course, reporters and editors need to capture their readers’ attention – and controversy sells. What suggestions do you have to help the good news stories compete?
Based on my experience at the Sun, I’d say good news stories have just as much chance of landing on the front page as controversies. But examine your “good news” story carefully before making a pitch to a reporter. Is it really news? Will the topic interest a wide range of readers? Will the story mention people who are willing to be interviewed and photographed? Is it an issue likely to get people talking? If the answers to those questions are yes, contact a reporter who you think might be keen and provide a brief but tantalizing overview. If you don’t get a response within a reasonable time, take your story idea to another outlet. Different stories appeal to different reporters, and an idea that doesn’t fly with one, may do so with another.
Question 4: Unfortunately, bad things will happen from time to time. What is your advice to boards for dealing with the media when bad news is about to break?
Designate one person who is not afraid of a microphone to serve as the media contact and ensure that he/she is available to respond promptly to reporters’ inquiries 24/7 until the issue has settled. Prepare and distribute a statement and post it on the school district website. Stick to the facts, knowing that in some cases such statements will form the basis of the first news story on the topic. Be honest and provide as much information as possible, keeping in mind the public’s right to know. Don’t act defensively and don’t be afraid to admit mistakes. (Trying to hide an issue invariably just gives it more momentum.) Update the statement as necessary and pay close attention to the way the story is covered – in traditional and social media – so that you can move quickly to clarify facts or correct any errors.
Question 5: Sadly, we are seeing a decline in print media, which is increasingly being replaced by online news and social media. What are your thoughts about this in general and how it changes the connection between newsmakers, reporters and readers?
Like many, I’m deeply troubled by the decline of the newspaper industry. The drop in the number of reporters – and beat reporters, in particular – means a lot of issues aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Newspapers also have less money for investigative work and the legal battles that may ensue. When I started working at the Sun in the mid-1990s, there were several people on staff who were classified as investigative reporters and given weeks and even months to work on large projects. That was rare by the time I left in 2013. Hard news seems to be losing out to opinion.
On the other hand, there are now more sources of information than ever before, including many reputable online newspapers and magazines. There are also independent bloggers who are doing a great job of tracking certain issues, but their work isn’t always easy to find. While there is more information available than ever before, there seems to be less willingness to read and consider both sides of an issue.
A big thank you to Janet for doing this interview while on vacation!
Stephen Hansen – firstname.lastname@example.org