Donovan Group Insights

How to Take Media Calls Like a Pro

When you pick up the phone, one of the last people you want to hear is a reporter. You’ve seen bad press befall other districts, and you fear the same could happen to you. Many district leaders assume the interview will go poorly before it even begins—and for some, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

However, media calls aren’t inherently bad. A reporter needs a story, and they’re coming to you for help. A lot of good can result from these calls—trust, credibility, strong media relations and a positive public perception of your district. The right communication strategies can set you up for a successful media call.

Media calls can be a positive experience

Many district leaders find themselves filled with dread when they listen to a reporter’s voicemail. What’s even worse is when you answer the phone and realize a reporter is on the other end. Reporters are good at catching district leaders off guard, which can lead to flustered quotes and spur-of-the-moment responses. If you let media calls intimidate you, the resulting stories are less likely to play out in your favor.

The fear of media calls is perfectly justified. Too many times, you’ve seen what can happen when a phone interview goes sideways. District leaders have been misquoted, taken out of context and coerced into providing inaccurate details. No one wants to be responsible for tainting the district’s reputation (and their own). You could ignore media calls altogether, but this often makes the situation even worse.

Try looking at media calls through a different lens. Use them as channels to tell your district’s story and control how the media portrays it. Instead of shying away, seize every opportunity to build positive relationships with local news outlets. School leaders can leverage strong media relations to build trust with the community and shape their perceptions of the district.

Structure of the typical media call

You can ease your nerves a little bit by knowing what to expect from media calls. Of course, the reporter will want to ask you tons of questions. Much like district leaders, every reporter has a preconceived idea of how the interview will go. They have questions, and they expect you to answer them. Once they’ve gone through the list, they’ll wish you a good day and hang up the phone.

Media calls don’t have to operate this way. Reporters aren’t the only ones who get to ask questions. In fact, you should be asking the questions first! Set yourself up for a successful interview by collecting some background information about the news story. After you exchange polite greetings, ask the reporter what they need, what the angle is and when the story is due. This will give you time to organize your thoughts before responding to their questions.

It’s crucial for district leaders to ask their questions first. You’ll want to know the angle of the story before you start giving out information. Negative news stories are easy to spot based on the information they’re looking for. When you learn the angle right away, you get a chance to suggest a different approach to the story. The reporter might choose to revise their questions, which can help to phrase the story in a more positive light.

Once you’ve asked your questions, let the reporter ask their own. It’s in the district’s best interest to answer a reporter’s questions fully and accurately. There are exceptions to this, such as when you’re legally not allowed to disclose certain information. Answer the questions you can, even the ones that don’t make your district look its very best. Your transparency can build trust and establish the district as a credible source. When reporters need information, you want them to come to you, not run with hearsay or turn to “friendlier” but less authoritative sources.

Tips for navigating media calls

Start the conversation by engaging in small talk. Ask how their day is going, or express interest in their latest news stories. Small talk can help break the ice before an interview and develop a positive relationship right off the bat. You and the reporter both know what’s coming next, and being friendly to each other can ease some of the tension.

Before you answer questions, ask the reporter if they’re looking for a quote or background information. If they want to quote you, it’s best to reschedule the call for a different time. This will give you a chance to organize your thoughts. A good reporter will respect your request because they know a well-prepared interviewee makes for a better story. Don’t let them pressure you into answering all their questions right away!

Prepare to go on record by writing down a few talking points. These are the big messages you want to get across during the interview. Keep them in front of you while speaking with the reporter to help direct the conversation. If a question drifts away from your talking points, first acknowledge the question, then get back on track. Planning ahead of time allows you to provide clear, thoughtful quotes that communicate your big takeaways to the readers.

Take every opportunity you can to shape your district’s story. Many times, a reporter will ask questions that don’t align with your overarching message. Politely suggest how the reporter can rephrase their questions. If they hesitate, explain that choosing a different angle is what’s best for the readers. You’re not refusing to answer the questions. You’re simply offering a better approach to the story.

Advice to protect your district’s reputation

When speaking with a reporter, one of your main objectives should be to preserve the district’s reputation. But reporters don’t just pay attention to your words—they’re assessing your responsiveness to media calls as well. You should return missed calls as soon as possible, and if you’re not available, have an assistant follow up with the reporter. Acknowledge the call one way or another so the reporter doesn’t seek out other sources.

This next one is simple: never lie to a reporter. It’s one of the fastest ways to lose the community’s trust. Lying doesn’t do the district any good, especially if reporters can cross-check the information you provided with other sources. You’ll earn more respect by telling some hard truths rather than skirting around them.

More information is better than less information. Don’t simply answer the reporter’s questions and call it a day. Answer their questions, then provide additional information you believe the public needs to hear. Reporters often don’t know what they need, so they end up asking the wrong questions. Adding more information can help guide the news story in the right direction.

When a district looks bad, it’s often because a school leader’s words were taken out of context. Always provide context for the information you give to a reporter. Painting a full picture can prevent reporters from filling in the gaps on their own.

Lastly, remember that there’s no such thing as going “off the record.” Anything you say during an interview is fair game. While the reporter can’t attribute it to you, they can still put that information in the news story. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want to see in print.

Media calls don’t have to be scary. Your district can come out on top when you know what to expect and organize your thoughts ahead of time. By putting the right strategies in place, you can build positive relationships with the media and boost your district’s image in the public eye.

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