Providing Information to Reporters (the Right Way)
As a district leader, you’ve likely participated in your fair share of media interviews. In almost every case, the reporter tries to control the conversation. They create the angle, they ask the questions and they decide what information goes in the story. Reporters make it seem like they hold all the power during an interview.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Communication is a two-way street, and the district leader has just as much control over the interview as the reporter. There’s no rule saying you have to stick to a reporter’s questions. Providing the information they truly need can help a reporter create a great news story about your district.
Give more than what they ask for
Many district leaders share the same perception of media interviews: the reporter asks questions, and the district leader answers them. This is certainly one approach you could take when engaging with the media. In fact, many district leaders believe interviews are as simple as answering a series of questions. They pick up the phone, list some facts and get back to their day, sometimes within a matter of five minutes.
If this sounds too easy, that’s because it is. District leaders shouldn’t just give the facts that reporters are looking for. By doing so, reporters are left to interpret the facts on their own. A reporter might gain the statistic they wanted, but they don’t know what it means, which factors influenced it or who was involved with certain decisions. Reporters attempt to fill in the blanks, and most of the time, their interpretations miss the mark in some way or another.
Media engagement involves way more than answering a reporter’s questions. As a school leader, you know which information is most important for telling the district’s story. More often than not, a reporter’s questions won’t touch on that information. Don’t be afraid to speak up and provide additional insight. You’ll protect the district’s reputation, and the reporter will have a better (and more accurate) story to tell. Everyone benefits when you go beyond a reporter’s questions!
Reporters don’t always know what they need
A reporter’s question is often a shot in the dark. Reporters don’t ask the wrong questions to be malicious or trick you into making the district look bad (at least, not most of the time). They simply don’t always know what information they need to tell the story. Reporters cover stories on a variety of topics, but they’re not necessarily experts on any of them.
The same rings true for education policy. Reporters generally don’t know the first thing about how to run a school district. Often, the only knowledge a reporter has about education comes from their time as a student in public schools—and of course, attending and running a school are two very different things. Given their lack of expertise, it’s not surprising that a reporter would ask you the wrong questions during an interview.
Dealing with reporters can be frustrating, but let’s take a moment to give them our sympathy. Reporters face a ton of pressure to cover stories when they know little or nothing about the subject! You’re the expert on education policy, so it’s your responsibility to guide the conversation. Answer their initial questions, then add whatever information you deem necessary for fleshing out the story. You’re making their job easier, and they’ll be grateful for it.
Shape your story with additional information
As you’ve learned by now, a reporter’s questions alone aren’t sufficient for telling your district’s story. Listing a bunch of facts and statistics only illuminates part of the picture. It’s in everyone’s best interest—the reporter’s, the readers’ and your district’s—to go above and beyond the reporter’s initial questions.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: more information is better than less information. Too many times, district leaders stick to a reporter’s questions because they’re scared of oversharing. This often backfires because the facts are missing crucial context. Of course, there are some things you can’t share, like pupil records. However, any information you’re allowed to disclose can only help your district.
Communication is an art form. District leaders must learn when to add information and how to go about it. Remember, you’re the expert here. It’s pretty easy to tell when a question is irrelevant to your district’s story. After answering the reporter’s question, say something like, “May I suggest a different approach to the story? I have some further insight that would benefit your readers.” If they’re open to it, move forward by providing the necessary information.
Always provide context with the facts
Every piece of information comes with context. In fact, the context is often more important than the information itself. Always explain what the information means, whether you’re answering a reporter’s question or providing additional insight to complete the story. Despite what they might think, reporters don’t just need the plain facts. They need the who, what, how and why that goes along with them.
For instance, a reporter might inquire about the decision surrounding a certain policy. Simply providing the answer would leave it open to interpretation. Paint a clear picture of the story by adding context to the policy decision. Describe who was involved and what research they used in the decision making process. When you provide context, the community is more likely to support the district’s decision.
Context is key to protecting your district’s reputation. Many districts will receive a negative news story when they didn’t do anything bad at all. Negative coverage stems from information being taken out of context. The more context you give, the less wiggle room reporters have to come up with their own interpretations.
Answer questions that make you look bad
This next piece of advice might sound counterintuitive. Up until this point, everything has been focused on how to make your district look good in the eyes of the community. Many school leaders wouldn’t dare to answer a question that makes their district look bad. As strange as it may sound, there are multiple benefits to giving reporters whatever they want.
District leaders who are willing to share the less savory details with reporters can establish a solid foundation of trust. A seasoned reporter can tell when a district leader is hiding something. If a district leader seems to be holding something back, the reporter will make a bigger deal out of an already negative story. Reporters hold a lot more respect for district leaders who are completely transparent. This can improve your district’s relationship with the media.
Being honest with reporters can also make your district a credible source of information. If you avoid a reporter’s question, they will turn to other sources for the answer. Sources outside your district are often inaccurate and don’t have the district’s best interest at heart. Some information might make your district look bad, but it’s better to hear it from you than from another source. When a reporter needs information in the future, they’ll come to you before anyone else.
When you speak with a reporter, remember these key tips: more is better than less, always provide context and don’t be afraid to make your district look bad. Engaging reporters the right way will establish trust, credibility and a lasting relationship. They’ll end up with a better story, and readers will get to see everything your district does to improve public education.