Working in the Media Landscape

There’s no way around it –you will have to interact with the media to get your message out. Use these tips to get the most out of your relationships.

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Whether you work in a city, a suburb, or a rural community, whether you are a district, a school, or a non-profit organization, you will invariably have to play in the media landscape.  There was a time when print and electronic media were the primary targets for building public understanding.  Today, the landscape of information, ideas, and opinions is vast, ubiquitous, and ever-changing.

We’d like to help you make some sense of how to work in this often-dizzying arena. Once you have a grasp of a few important points, we’re confident you’ll make your way with relative ease.

Why Work with the Media?

Education is a public issue that affects every citizen in some way.  Therefore, it resides in the public arena.  In our democratic society, the media are the “mediators” between you and the citizens in your city or town. Elected officials know this well. If you visit a member of Congress in Washington, you’ll see a bank of television sets in her office. Political leaders view the media as a proxy for the public, so they monitor the news closely.

You don’t need a row of monitors in your office or classroom, but you do need to make your issue known in the traditional and new media.  There are several advantages of doing so:

  • You can build public awareness, understanding and support for student-centered learning and its core tenets.
  • You can recruit new supporters and advocates, thereby expanding the base of those who can spread the word to others.
  • You can reach policy makers who are considering student-centered legislation.
  • You can begin to shift the public conversation, which will give you more “air cover” to pursue the approaches to learning that are supported by science and best practice.

One note of caution: It’s tempting to conclude that any media coverage is good coverage—and far too many people gauge their success solely by the number of column inches, web hits or tweets.  While these metrics definitely have their place, an exclusive focus on the numbers can backfire.  Your stories must be framed carefully so as not to trigger people’s entrenched mental models about education and learning.  Those old models interfere with people’s ability to understand student-centered learning and will only reinforce the superficial public conversation about high-stakes testing and who’s to blame for the so-called Achievement Gap. For more on this, see Framing the Public Story.

Understanding the Media Culture

Toolkit_Breaking_News“You always show up for the negative things. Why don’t you ever cover the positive stories?” A school principal once asked this question to a panel of print and electronic journalists.  One reporter on the panel replied: “We don’t cover the positive stories because you don’t tell us about them.”  The lesson is that journalists work in a culture that is reactive, and it’s only gotten worse with the advent of the 24-hour news cycle and the social media echo chamber.  If there’s an emergency or scandal in your organization, the media will be quick to cover it because there are deadlines to meet and eyeballs to attract. But if you don’t guide them in the direction of the innovative practices in your school, they will not find them on their own. Let’s look at how to open the door to the media in a way that will build public understanding and support for student-centered learning.

Building a Relationship

Conduct some research and make a media contacts list, such as this one for the State of Maine. It’s all about the relationship. It is the easiest thing to forget and perhaps the most important thing to remember!  In the more traditional media, namely, print and electronic news organizations, it’s critical that you get to know who is covering education and learning. The larger news organizations sometimes have “beat” reporters, people who cover a single issue. Many sophisticated journalists are writing about education and learning, particularly as the field of neuroscience is revealing new discoveries about how the human brain works.   In smaller news organizations, there may not be an education reporter, but there will often be someone who covers education on a somewhat regular basis.

Here are some tips for developing relationships with reporters, editors, producers, or directors:

1. Conduct some research.

Who is covering education and learning? Read, listen to, and view their stories.  At newspapers, editors generally assign reporters to cover stories for their respective sections.  In which sections do education stories typically appear? Learn the name of these editors.   In television and radio news, the assignment editors and managing editors are the gatekeepers.  At television and radio talk shows, executive producers, executive and managing editors, and producers are typically the go-to people. On-air hosts very rarely respond to outside inquiries, unless you know them personally.  If you know someone who works in the news media—a receptionist, a production assistant, a copy editor, or a sound engineer—or if you know someone who knows someone, make the most of that connection! Recently, a director of an organization who had been trying to make contact with a reporter was provided with a great opportunity when that reporter landed in the yoga class she taught after hours! The point is, you never know where or when a connection will materialize, but it’s good to be on the lookout.

Toolkit_BackToSchoolAdminCover.Web2. Keep the connection.

Once you establish a connection, be prepared to maintain it. It doesn’t require a weekly phone call (actually, that would be annoying) but you may want to check in every once in a while. Share an article from Education Week or one of the other education trade publications; it could be the basis for a story at some point. For example, you may want to send a journalist an article you’ve found on the Hub, with a note about how this new research is informing instructional practice in your district or school. It’s best to establish a relationship whereby you’re not asking for something every time you call. Establish your expertise over time and be of service. Remain as authentic and open as possible—journalists are people, too!

3. Their emergency is YOUR emergency. 

When the media comes calling—to report on a crisis or a developing story (positive or negative)—it is your job to respond, and to respond immediately.  Nothing raises journalists’ hackles more than the phrase: “No comment.” To build a good relationship, be as prompt as possible.  One of the best ways to make a friend in the media is to ask:  “What’s your deadline?”  That simple question demonstrates respect for the journalist and the culture in which he operates.  If the journalist requests information that is not at your fingertips, tell him that you will do some research and get back to him. Follow up at your earliest opportunity!  Many people make the mistake of returning a journalist’s call at their own convenience; if you want the reporter in your court, you need to live by their constraints. A deadline is a deadline, and the story is being written with or without your input.

4. If a reporter covers a story well, send an email or a handwritten thank-you note.

Do the same if you’ve appeared on a radio or television talk show. Gratitude goes a long way toward building and maintaining positive relationships.

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