Donovan Group Insights

The 5 Golden Principles of Media Relations

There are no hard-and-fast rules when dealing with the media. Still, some strategies are more effective than others. Before going into an interview, district leaders should think about how they’re going to answer a reporter’s questions. A successful interview isn’t just about the information you give. It’s about the approach you take.

With every interview they complete, a district leader fine tunes their approach to media interactions. The Donovan Group has leveraged decades of communication experience to create a tried-and-true strategy that district leaders can start applying right away. We call these the five golden principles: be responsive, never lie, more is better than less, always provide context and never speak “off the record.”

Let’s break down the five golden principles behind positive media relations.

#1: Return a reporter’s call as soon as possible

Imagine you just got out of a meeting. You return to the office and check your voicemails. One of them is from a reporter who works with the local news station. They want to speak with you about a recent event at one of your schools. You know you have to call them back, but your schedule is packed for the rest of the day. The interview can wait until tomorrow, right?

Not exactly. District leaders need to return media calls as soon as possible. To understand why, let’s take a look at the typical lifecycle of a newspaper story.

A reporter shows up for work around 8:00am. They sit down at their desk and scan news releases in the hopes of finding a good story. Newspaper reporters face a lot of pressure because they have to write a story from start to finish within the same day. That reporter who called you has to pitch, research, write and submit the story by 5:00pm.

In other words, reporters need information fast. If they don’t get it from you, they’ll get it from somewhere else. Responding before the end of the day gives you a chance to shape your district’s story. If you don’t have time for a phone interview, ask your assistant to send over a statement. Any response is better than not responding at all.

#2: Never lie to a reporter (not even a little)

Reporters are going to ask you a lot of questions. Some are easy to answer, and some are not. Understandably, school leaders are reluctant to give answers that make their district look bad. They will do whatever it takes to protect the district’s reputation as well as their own. A district leader can’t avoid the question because that’s not a good look, either. They fear the truth is too unpleasant, so instead, they lie.

Lying to reporters is never a good idea. This is especially true when a question addresses information that’s open to the public. If a reporter asks for public information, they can cross check your answer with other sources. The reporter will become suspicious if there are discrepancies among the sources. A discrepancy can lead to even more questions, none of which will make your district look good.

Lying to a reporter isn’t just embarrassing. It can sever the trust between your district and local news outlets. When a reporter realizes they’ve been lied to, they probably won’t return to the district for information in the future. Instead, they’ll turn to less reliable sources outside the district. Honesty can score you some major points with the media, an influential ally that can sway the public’s opinion.

#3: More is always better than less

Too many times, district leaders simply answer the reporter’s questions and call it a day. This is one approach to taking media calls, but it isn’t necessarily the best. Even seasoned reporters can ask a lot of the wrong questions. District leaders must be willing to step up and provide details that aren’t covered in the questions. Otherwise, the reporter will publish an incomplete story.

It’s always better to give more information than less information. Many district leaders avoid this because they’re scared they will accidentally say something they shouldn’t. However, providing additional information can make the news story better. Your insight can fill in the gaps left by a reporter’s questions. The reporter will gain the full picture of what happened and why.

This doesn’t mean you should flat-out refuse to answer irrelevant questions. And of course, some information is inappropriate to share. Give the information they want, then segue into those key messages you believe the public should hear. Providing more information doesn’t just boost your district’s public image. It also makes the reporter’s job a whole lot easier.

#4: Always provide context with the facts

District leaders are responsible for giving reporters accurate information. Not only that, every piece of information needs context to go along with it. Facts don’t mean a whole lot without the who, what and why behind them. If you don’t provide context, the reporter will come up with their own. Many times, a district looks bad not because it did something wrong, but because the facts were taken out of context.

There are plenty of opportunities to add context during an interview. Once you state the facts, explain what they mean and how they fit into the story. In some cases, you might not be able to speak directly with a reporter over the phone. This will require you to send the information in writing. Include a cover letter that provides context to the facts, and leave sticky notes that point to the most important pieces of information.

#5: There’s no “off the record” in media calls

As mentioned earlier, more information is better than less information. District leaders should feel empowered to add details wherever they believe it’s necessary. You may think there’s a piece of information that’s critical for telling the full story. However, you might not want your name attached to the information. This is when district leaders try to give information “off the record.”

But in truth, there’s no such thing as “off the record.” Many district leaders believe speaking “off the record” will allow them to say whatever they want without taking the fall for it. Reporters can use anything you say, and they will attach your name to it. If you’re speaking on-record, they can use your words verbatim. If you’re speaking on-background, they can use any information and attribute you as the source.

A good rule of thumb is to never say anything you don’t want to see in a news story. Reporters might be asking the questions, but you control what information they receive. Only give a piece of information if you’re comfortable with your name appearing alongside it in the newspaper.

These five golden principles should form the basis for every media interaction. Your district has the best chance of earning a positive news story when you respond quickly, tell the truth, say more, provide context and ditch the concept of speaking “off the record.” District leaders often feel pressured to give the perfect responses during interviews, but as long as you follow these principles, you will serve your school district well.

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