Getting a school’s message across in the new media landscape

While the news media environment has changed, our goal as communications professionals hasn’t—create a simple, accurate and relevant message for quick delivery to parents, employees, students and community.

Editor’s note: DA’s new marketing column will appear quarterly.

The news media has changed and is still changing. The internet’s ability to provide free or cheap marketing has taken its toll on advertising revenue, and newsrooms have been hit hard. The days of multiple reporters and photographers available to cover your story are gone.

Social media has changed how reporters gather information and can have a heavy influence on story selection.

Tweets now attract more attention from the media than does a lengthy district press release. Facebook posts can garner thousands of comments and catch the attention of your local reporter. The whole notion of media relations is different than it was just a few years ago.

While the environment has changed, our goal as communications professionals hasn’t—create a simple, accurate and relevant message for quick delivery to parents, employees, students and community. As you try to navigate this new landscape, I have a few suggestions.

Don’t rely on the news media.

We all know that by the time a simple message makes its way through reporters, photographers, editors, producers and others, the message can be twisted, distorted or even lost. The news media is a great way to reach a large number of people, but if the message being delivered is not what you intended, it can actually work against you.

It becomes even more important to be your own publisher when considering the growing distrust in the news media and the tendency of people to seek out information with which they already agree. You need to reach out to your audiences directly and deliver your message without filters.

The factors that have changed the news media also offer a chance to reach out on your own. Create your own social media channels and use them. Parent notification software allows you to reach directly into homes via texts, calls or emails.

Use proactive communication channels consistently to share as much information as possible with your parents and community, and they will learn to turn to you as a trusted source of information. With all that said, my second suggestion may seem a bit strange, but it is equally important.

Don’t ignore the media.

I once worked with a principal whose attitude was, “Unless you can show me that allowing a TV camera in my school helps my students score higher on tests, I don’t want to see it at my school.” It’s tempting to take this attitude, but it wouldn’t be healthy.

The stories won’t stop just because a school refuses to talk to the news media. Upset parents will still contact reporters. Critics won’t go away. Employees will still make mistakes, and the TV cameras will still show up. If schools and educators don’t work with the news media, only one side of the story will be told.

Presentation is a plus.

In these days of shrinking newsrooms, the number of stories about school fundraisers and fun art events are also on the decline, but that doesn’t mean you should give up. The trick is to change your thinking.

If you can put a face to the story, it will be much more interesting to the news media. A press conference announcing a big donation to a school, complete with an oversized check, is nice.

A story about how that donation will help buy calculators for advanced math classes—and inviting a reporter into those classes to show how the calculators are being used—is much better. A person standing at a podium talking about possible education cuts in the state legislature is a bit boring.

Inviting the political reporter into a school and showing how many teachers or supplies those cuts will cost is more captivating.

It takes more time and effort to develop these deeper story pitches, but in these changing times it’s what you need to catch the attention of the news media.

Jason R. Olsen is communications officer for the Salt Lake City School District.

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