Minor incidents may fly under the media radar. Any incident that spills off school grounds or draws more widespread attention will also likely draw media attention. So at any moment in a crisis, the next call may be from a reporter wanting information and a comment.
Cooperate with the media, as much as possible. Clearly, if a media outlet is mishandling the story or breaking school policy or rules about access to the campus, corrective action should be taken. In general, though, it is best to work with the media and present facts rather than being at odds with them.
Your school or district may have a public information officer or media relations specialist. If so, that person should be involved from the very outset, to be prepared for early media calls.
That person—or someone else with previous experience working with media or public relations—should be designated to handle all media inquiries. It’s imperative that this person be kept up-to-date on all aspects of the situation, through regular meetings and communications.
Give everyone on staff this person’s contact information, and instruct everyone to deliver a clear message: “All media inquiries are being handled by [X]. Here is their contact information …”
A single hub is vital to avoid miscommunication and the spread of conflicting messages or misinformation. If four people are answering media questions in four different ways, you will end up sending mixed and misleading messages.
Resist the urge to deliver a flat “no comment.” The lack of information makes the media more apt to look to others to answer their questions and also may be seen by some as a lack of action on your part—that you are ignoring the incident, trying to sweep it under the rug, not taking it seriously, hoping it just might go away. Because of that, a “no comment” response may damage your efforts to rebuild community. What’s a good alternative, when you have little or nothing to say? Frame the response as a values statement: “We’re very concerned. We don’t yet have all the facts. We’ll be ready to make a comment when we do.”
So be prepared to work with the media, and see it as an opportunity for you to widen the denunciation of the incident and to frame the message you want to be out there.
Smaller incidents may involve only a few calls from the local media. For larger incidents, it likely will involve the organization of a press conference for local, regional and sometimes national media. This press conference should happen within a few days of the incident—probably not on the same day, but perhaps on the afternoon of the next day or on the morning of the third day. The top school administrator should be the main speaker; again, this is not a time to delegate.
In most cases, it is a bad idea to stiff-arm the media at this event with “no comments” and hostile attitudes. Efforts to do so almost always backfire. You want to work with reporters and readily share as much information as is safely possible. This can help ease the crisis. On the other hand, it is not necessary to answer every—or even most—reporters’ questions, especially in the early stages of a crisis when you are still figuring out what happened and how to deal with it. Your number-one priority is the safety of students, parents and staff.
So what to say at the press conference? First of all, keep it simple. Use short, direct sentences. Provide enough details to explain what happened, but don’t slip into conjecture or guesswork about motives or other aspects of the incident. Repeat your main points often. Have a simple, nondefensive response ready for questions you do not wish to answer. “That’s not something I can comment on.” Or, “We haven’t determined that yet.”
Here’s a road map for your press conference message. This same road map can be helpful in developing talking points for teachers who will be speaking to students and their families and caregivers:
- State what has happened.
- Denounce the hateful incident.
- Indicate where you are in the investigation (early, partway through, nearly done).
- State what steps the school is taking in its response to the incident (setting up counseling teams for students and staff, creating an incident response team to investigate the incident).
- Describe supports that already exist in the school (an anti-harassment policy, core values, pledges of tolerance signed by staff and students, etc.).
- Indicate that clearly there is need for more work to be done.
- Remind people that you are an educational institution, well-positioned to raise awareness and increase understanding around the issues raised by the hateful incident.
- State that discipline will be handled in a manner appropriate to the offense, based on school policy and local laws.
- Focus on positive steps you plan to take rather than on punitive measures against perpetrators.
And here are some tips on holding a press conference:
- Choose a room on the perimeter of the school, preferably with its own entrance. Otherwise, you’ll be allowing people with cameras and recording devices to walk down your hallways, potentially capturing unapproved images. (You also can partner with a nearby community organization and hold the press conference off campus.)
- Hold the press conference in a room from which you can exit easily when the conference ends, and have a couple of people remain behind to escort media from the room. You should be in a position to calmly call an end to the press conference and leave.
- Set the press conference after school has been dismissed and students have left the building or before the school day starts prior to students’ arrival. This will minimize media seeking student and parent comments as they leave school.
- Give reporters copies of all statements you make, including any messages denouncing the incident that have been posted on websites, given to students or sent home to families and caregivers.
- Don’t announce anything dramatic to the media if faculty, students, families and caregivers have not been informed first. It raises tension and distrust when direct constituents hear or read surprising news in the media.
- Speak in short, direct sentences when answering questions. Longer sentences can end up being edited badly for TV, radio and print media.
- Answer the question being asked. Don’t wander onto unrelated topics.
- Be prepared to answer the same question multiple times without becoming irritated or defensive. Reporters often ask the same question in different ways to elicit deeper responses. Simply repeat your main message as often as necessary, in a calm, professional tone. Don’t sound exasperated at having to repeat something; that’s not the tone or image you want to see on the evening news.
- Have a ready response to questions you do not wish to answer, such as “That’s not something I can address.” Then ask, “Next question?”
- When the questioning has run out of steam, or you need to return to deal directly with the crisis, offer a polite, “Thank you,” and exit.
Unless there is a dramatic turn of events following the initial incident, one press conference may be enough. After that, send out press statements as key actions occur. If community healing events—a candlelight vigil or a rally for inclusion—are planned, alert the press in advance. Coverage of the positive aftermath of a bias incident illustrates the steps being taken to improve school climate.