Guest blog: Handling the media when the unexpected happens

With schools being schools, you are only ever one phone call away from the unexpected. It is not just the Ofsted call that can cause a raft of activity; complaints, allegations and media enquiries can all cause the heartbeats of Headteachers and CEOs to quicken considerably.

So, from a comms perspective, if you do get a call that makes you panic and think you are about to make the headlines in the local press – what can you do?

There are two types of crisis that I deal with in schools. The blue light ones where 999 has had to be called, and the zit issues – where something has been bubbling away below the surface and it is about to come to a head (sorry if you were eating while reading this)!

Neither of these scenarios should have you running to your keyboard to start drafting communications from scratch. If you have an issue, start drafting a comms plan from day one. As part of your incident management response, have some template comms statements drafted and prepared.  You will appreciate this extra work when the moment arises that you need to respond quickly!

It may sound counter-productive, but most schools initially think about the media statement first. The cry is: “what will we say to the press?”. It becomes the focus – but should it be?

I would argue that the press statement is the last part of any comms plan. Just think about what a journalist will want to do when they get hold of a story…they will want to speak to parents to feature their inevitable “shock and disgust”. They will want a comment from an MP, councillor or stakeholder sharing their view. So, get your stakeholders engaged first. Be open and transparent about the issues you are facing, and most importantly what you are doing to address them!

Most headteachers, understandably, see social media as a dark world full of anger, resentment and bitterness. But does that mean that you should ignore it?

While it may not be right to engage with the comments, social media  is an incredibly useful tool to find out what the community know and are saying before any official announcement is made. If it helps, see social media more as a temperature gauge rather than a comms platform. It will influence your planning and thinking.

A journalist wants colour, life and human interest for a story. While interviews are not always the best way to go, if you provide the press with a bland statement then don’t be surprised if it is relegated to the last two paragraphs of a story.

Can you say the same thing with a few interesting sound bites that the journalist can use and focus on?

If you have a significant comms problem, then it is likely to be the start of an ongoing dialogue with your community.

You may think that one bristling statement to justify and clarify inaccuracies, or even ignoring things, might be helpful in the short-term – but it rarely is.

Such an approach tends to lead to FOI requests, more complaints and accusations about a lack of transparency. So, think about the long term – it can, after all, be a war rather than a battle.

Find out more about how to plan, prepare and respond to any crisis comms issue in your school, contact Ben Peck on 07713 517 393 or