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Handling Reporters With Ease

Stacy Bogard

By Stacy Bogard, CAE, MASB Assistant Director of Communications, PR & Marketing

DashBoard, Sept. 6, 2017

You’re in a tough spot—a reporter has called you out of the blue with questions on an issue you’re either not up to speed on or don’t want to talk about—what do you do?

Having a positive relationship with the reporters assigned to cover your district is important as the majority of your community learns about school board activities through the news media and word of mouth rather than through direct contact with the school board. Citizens who don’t have children in your schools, a growing majority in many districts, rely primarily on the general news media for school news and secondarily on friends and neighbors. So you’ll want to do whatever you can to ensure that the media receives openness, honesty, accessibility and trustworthiness from every member of your board and administration.

To have this happen as effectively as possible, it is best to designate a spokesperson (or people)—this is typically the superintendent (for the district) and the board president (for the board). If someone other than the designated spokesperson is contacted, the best first step is to refer the reporter to these individuals.

If the reporter insists on speaking with you or you are a spokesperson, it’s ok to request that you follow up with them at a later time even if it’s only an hour later. Ask them what they would like to discuss so you are able to pull together the applicable background information and resources.

To avoid misinformation and misunderstandings, you’ll want to be able to give reporters some sense of the history behind a situation and provide charts, graphs and analysis of complex issues, especially when it comes to finances. Work with the appropriate people in your district (going through your superintendent if you are a board member) to have this information available.

When you do talk with the reporter stick to the facts and remember that nothing is off the record—it’s not your opinion that counts, but what the district and board want to convey. To help with this, it’s good to make note of a few points you want to emphasize. These sound bites will ensure that you’re staying on the district’s agreed-upon message and that the reporter’s audience will be informed about what the district wants them to remember about a particular situation or topic.

If you are asked about something you don’t want to discuss, avoid not responding or saying “no comment.” These responses are taken as an admission of guilt or that you don’t know what you’re talking about. It would be better to direct them to someone who does know, tell them you don’t know and will get back to them when you have the answer, or re-emphasize the points you made note of before—keep coming back to the message you want the audience to take away.

A few other tips for working with reporters:

  • To head off any unexpected conversations, be proactive in your communication, providing what information you can in writing. For example, if you notice a reporter isn’t at your board meeting, send them an email with the details of a new program your district is offering.
  • Don’t use jargon or “educationese”—you’ll confuse them and they’ll then confuse their audiences. Make your points clearly in plain English.
  • If you’ve promised additional information, be sure to follow through and provide it.
  • Be sensitive to deadlines—if a reporter’s noted they need the information by 2 p.m., don’t get back to them with it at 3:30. That would break any trust you’ve established.
  • To be sure they have received what you sent and/or verify that they don’t need anything else, you can follow-up with a call or email.
  • Never talk about what was discussed in a closed session to anyone. It’s like Vegas—what happens in closed session stays in closed session.

If you have any communications-related questions, please contact the MASB Communications, PR and Marketing Department at webmaster@masb.org or 517.327.5900. You can also attend our Board Member Certification (CBA) classes on Communicating Effectively in Difficult Times (CBA 232), Media Relations (CBA 252) and Spokesperson Training (CBA 262) for more tips and information. View the available dates and times here.

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