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Working Effectively with Local Media

Breaking the ice

Learn and deliver the TSTA message

Preparing for Media Interviews

Writing a news release

Planning a news conference

Writing letters to the editor

Crisis Communication Planning

Breaking the ice

  • Decide on a primary and backup media coordinator, or contact person, for your local. Make sure all local media outlets, including influential bloggers, have their personal phone numbers and personal email addresses.
  • Do some research and learn the names of the local reporters and bloggers who cover education news and learn the names of their editors or news directors. Do this by reading the local newspaper every day (in print or online), following bloggers, watching local TV newscasts and listening to radio newscasts, if there are any. Become familiar with what kinds of stories these reporters usually cover.
  • Compile a list of contact information for these education reporters and editors. You can do this by calling them or checking the newspaper and TV websites for contact information.
  • Call the reporters and introduce yourself. See if you can drop by the newspaper or the station for a personal visit. If not, email them your contact information. Let them know who you are. Keep in touch but don’t become a pest. The goal is to be the first one your local reporters consider contacting to get the teacher’s or ESP’s viewpoint on an education story.

Learn and deliver the TSTA message

The TSTA message is about children. Teachers and parents know what makes a classroom a better place for children to learn:
1. Good teachers
2. Small classes
3. Discipline and safety
4. Up-to-date books and teaching materials that meet high academic standards

  • Educational issues are going to be defined by someone. Take the lead in having your local define the issues in terms of the TSTA message.
  • Always emphasize the impact of policy decisions on children. School budget cuts and lost teacher jobs mean more crowded classrooms and diminished learning opportunities for students.
  • Despite political turmoil over public education, our members still have success stories to tell. Find members of your local to personalize the TSTA message and tell the public what they are doing every day for our school children.
  • Present this message so that other stakeholders (such as the PTA, the business community, elected officials and parents) will buy into it too. All of us are accountable for student success.

Making your local the “go-to” source for teacher information and viewpoints

  • Always return reporters’ phone calls promptly or as promptly as possible.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, tell the reporter you will find out and call him/her back. And do so, as promptly as possible, that same day. A reporter will not miss a deadline or postpone a story waiting for you to call back. If you want your local to be in the story, respond quickly.
  • When you are talking to a reporter, frame the point you are trying to make in terms of how it affects teachers, students and classrooms, not unions.
  • Find and train members of your local (in addition to your officers) who can be ready to talk knowledgably with reporters on short notice when the need arises. Reporters sometimes want to talk with what they call “real people,” not union spokespersons.

Stay informed

  • Keep up with the news, especially the news about education, your local school district and political figures and events that may affect your district or local.
  • Be prepared to comment on local, state and national developments in education and political developments affecting schools and teachers. What do you think of budget cuts being considered by the Legislature? What would your members like to see in a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act?

Get there first…and stay there

  • When policy decisions affecting teachers, other educators and students are in the works, get your message out as early as possible.
  • Repeat that message over and over.
  • Be proactive as often as possible and reactive as seldom as possible.
  • Once other stakeholders have made up their minds on an issue, changing their minds is very difficult.
  • Always mention TSTA and your local’s name in promoting your position.

Some interview do’s

  • Prepare for the interview. Keep up with the news, know the issues, know your talking points, anticipate likely questions and prepare responses. Find out who will be interviewing you, if possible, and how much time has been set aside for the interview.
  • Stay on message. See the TSTA Message section above.
  • Be pleasant.
  • Use specifics, contrasts, comparisons and anecdotes.
  • Be emotionally appropriate for the issue at hand. Don’t start cracking jokes, for example, if a reporter is asking you about the impact of budget cuts on teachers’ jobs or the impact of dropouts on the local economy.

Some interview don’ts

  • Never lie or attempt to mislead a reporter. Your reputation as a reliable news source is at stake. Without it, you have no relationship with the media. If you don’t know the answer to a question, don’t try to guess. Tell the reporter you don’t know, will find out and will call him/her back. Then do so.
  • Don’t say, “No comment,” to a reporter. If you cannot answer a question, politely say so, something like, “I am sorry, but our local would rather not discuss that issue.” Or, “I am not in a position to answer your question right now.”
  • Be extremely careful about going “off the record” with a traditional media reporter (newspaper, television or radio) and avoid doing so unless you have worked with the reporter for a long time and have found him/her very trustworthy. Also, before you say anything, make sure you and the reporter have the same meaning for “off the record.” Under most circumstances, it means whatever you say to a reporter is not to be published or broadcast. It is merely intended as information to help the reporter better develop his/her story or better understand your viewpoint. A variation of “off the record” is “for background only.” That usually means the reporter can use the information, even a direct quote, in a story but not attribute it to a source by name. The important thing is to establish the ground rules with a reporter before discussing anything to which you don’t want your name attached. Don’t blurt out a comment that you don’t want to see attributed to you in print and then say, “That was off the record.” Many reporters will not honor your request, and you will find yourself, perhaps to your embarrassment, quoted by name. Never go “off the record” with a blogger because many bloggers operate by their own rules. If you don’t want to be quoted in a blog, don’t say anything.
  • Never lose your temper with a newsperson.
  • Never answer hypothetical questions, such as, “If the school board doesn’t approve the pay raise you are seeking, will your local settle for a smaller amount?” Don’t compromise your position before the vote is taken.
  • Never use jargon or acronyms. You and your members may know what ESEA means, but most of the public doesn’t.
  • Never use profanity or slang.
  • Avoid answering questions with just a “yes” or a “no.” Take the opportunity to repeat or reinforce the TSTA message, such as, “No, we don’t want the school district to seek 22-1 class size waivers, because small classes improve the learning climate for our students.”
  • Don’t let a reporter wear you down and make you answer a question you can’t or don’t want to answer.
  • Don’t be so relaxed you say something you shouldn’t.
  • Don’t think the interview is over until after the reporter leaves.

Make it real

  • Personal values trump lofty ideals….It is better to say, “Strong local schools improve opportunities for our children.”….than, “A strong public education system supports democracy.”
  • Positive trumps negative….It is better to say, “We support the appropriate use of standardized tests – as one means of judging what children know.”….than, “We oppose an accountability system based on standardized test scores.”
  • Concrete trumps abstract….It is better to say, “We support more resources to reduce class sizes and buy new textbooks.”….than, “We support a 3.7 percent increase in the school district’s budget.”

What is newsworthy?

Here are some ingredients for news:

  • Something new AND of potential interest to the general public. A new mentoring program sponsored by your local may be considered newsworthy by your local media. The fact that the president of your local was reelected to a second term probably wouldn’t be.
  • Something timely. That mentoring program is news if it is, indeed, something new, not if your local started it two years ago but never got around to announcing it.
  • Something involving a public figure, celebrity, or well-known organization. Tell the media, for example, if a Super Bowl-winning quarterback is going to help your local read to grade school students.
  • Something with a strong human interest angle. This doesn’t have to be “hard” news, but something with a lot of appeal. Stories involving children normally have a lot of appeal. Let the media know if your local is collecting coats and toys for needy children or sponsoring a trip to a special event for a group of disadvantaged young people.
  • Something that affects or benefits a large number of people. The more people who are affected by an event or a program, the more potential it has for attracting the media’s interest.
  • Something that is a danger or a threat to the community. A school board proposal to increase class sizes or close a neighborhood school certainly can be considered a threat to important members of the community – school children. Tell the media why you oppose the board’s plans and what you intend to do about it.
  • Something that centers on an event. If members of your local are going to attend the next school board meeting to speak out against proposed cuts to the fine arts program, announce your plans to the media and promote coverage beforehand.
  • Something with proximity. Your local media is interested in what is happening in your community, including your schools.
  • Something that is a variation on a theme already receiving media attention. Local media like to cover the potential local impacts of statewide or national issues, such as budget cuts to education or a new testing program for students.
  • Something that is credible. If you aren’t credible, you will quickly lose the media’s interest.
  • Something visual. This is for television news. If you are opposing a school board move to increase class sizes, consider staging a rally and inviting students and their parents to join you. Hold it across the street from a school and hold up attention-getting signs. Watch the language, though, and the spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Some opportunities to make news:

  • Actions taken by the local school board and school administration. Is the board considering teacher layoffs? Find members who can talk about how that would increase class sizes and negatively affect their students’ learning environment. Raise questions about whether the board has fully considered other cost-cutting alternatives with less impact on classrooms. Let the media know that members of your local will be at the next board meeting to fight for their jobs – and for their students.
  • Is your local endorsing candidates in the next school board race? Announce to the media who your choices are and why their elections are important for students, teachers and support staff. This would be a good opportunity to hold a news conference with your candidates (more about how to do that below).
  • If your local is supporting a school bond election, tell the media about it and why it is important for your students that voters approve the bonds.
  • Actions being considered by the Texas Legislature. Do lawmakers want to reduce education spending or pass a private school voucher bill? Tell your local media why those are bad ideas that would lead to larger classes, outdated textbooks and other cutbacks in the public schools. Is the Legislature considering a pay raise for teachers? Tell the media you support the effort to bring Texas teacher pay closer to the national average.
  • National events, such as American Education Week and Read across America. Think about possibilities for local publicity. Maybe your local can convince the mayor to read at a local elementary school for Read across America. Alert the local media for possible coverage. This would be a good visual opportunity for TV.
  • Events sponsored by your local, such as annual scholarship presentations or banquets honoring retirees or teachers of the year. If a teacher from your local is honored, tell the media his/her story, how he/she is making a difference for students.
  • Unexpected events, such as a school damaged by fire or destroyed in a tornado. Tell the media how teachers are pitching in to help their students and parents get through the disaster.

Preparing for Media Interviews

Sometimes, you will get unexpected phone calls from reporters on deadline, asking you to comment on a pending issue before the school board or the Legislature. That is why, as noted earlier in this plan, you need to keep up with the news. Read your local newspapers and watch TV newscasts.

If you know ahead of time that you are going to be interviewed and have a general idea of the subject, use some of that time to review any relevant materials and talking points. If necessary, you could even practice with a friend or co-worker. Remember the basic TSTA message (outlined above), remember to work it into your answers and think about these questions beforehand:

  • How do I emphasize this TSTA message?
  • How might someone disagree with me?
  • How do I rebut the criticism?

For all media interviews, note the reporter’s name, media outlet and phone number. If you need to follow up later, you’ll know whom to contact. You also may have a new addition to your media contact list.

Conducting newspaper interviews

  • Many newspaper interviews will be done over the phone, although for longer stories, a reporter may want to conduct an interview in person. Remember, unexpected subjects and questions can come up in any news interview. So, be prepared!
  • Again, remember TSTA’s message about what makes effective classrooms – good teachers, small classes, discipline and safety, and up-to-date teaching materials – and include those points in the interview.
  • Remember the interview do’s and don’ts outlined above.
  • Be quotable. Be enthusiastic about teachers and their work.

Looking and sounding good on TV

The same preparation guidelines and interview do’s and don’ts apply for television interviews, and there are other things to remember about being an effective communicator on TV:

  • Look good for the television audience. Dress neatly and conservatively. Avoid loud colors and patterns.
  • Forget the microphone.
  • Talk to the reporter, not the camera.
  • Use simple, short sentences.
  • Incorporate the reporter’s question into your answer.
  • Stay on message.
  • You want one good sound bite of 5 to 10 seconds. You may want to plan and practice this ahead of time. For most TV interviews, you are likely to know in advance what kind of questions are going to be asked. So, know your issues, know your talking points and fashion a memorable (but truthful) quote that the TV reporter can’t resist using. Remember, most TV interviews are very short.
  • Watch your body language.

Sounding good on the radio

Again, follow the preparation guidelines and be mindful of the do’s and don’ts, and remember that most radio interviews are short and are over the phone. So, make your point quickly and clearly.

  • Use simple, short sentences.
  • Stay on message.
  • Deliver that good sound bite.

Writing a news release

  • News releases should be short, but long enough to tell the story. Most should be no longer than one page.
  • Write a short, active headline that explains the subject of your release. For example: “Teachers to oppose fine arts cuts.”
  • Write the “lead,” an active sentence or short paragraph at the beginning of the release that captures the essence of your message. For example: “More than 100 teachers will attend the Smithtown School Board meeting Monday night (Sept. 6) to protest cuts to the fine arts program.”
  • Your next paragraph should be a strong, punchy quote from a teacher. For example:  “How can we cut fine arts funding and still say we are providing our children with a well-rounded education?” said Smithtown TSTA/NEA President Judy Carlson, who teaches art at Smithtown Middle School.
  • Add a few more short paragraphs, putting your most important points first. In this example, you could continue with a paragraph further describing the importance of fine arts programs: Carlson pointed out that “countless studies have shown that arts education develops problem-solving skills, concentration, risk taking, creative thinking, collaboration and eye-hand coordination in students.”
  • Be sure to include a paragraph giving the time the school board meeting is scheduled to begin and the location, including the street address. If teachers plan to rally before the meeting, also include that information with the time and location. The goal is to promote media coverage of the event, as well as publicize your side of the issue.
  • Include all the essential information – the who, what, when, where, why and, if relevant, the how.
  • Don’t assume the media will be familiar with the issue. Include some brief background information. Don’t write in educational or union jargon or use acronyms for government programs. Spell it out!
  • Double check your spelling, grammar and punctuation. You represent teachers!
  • Include your contact phone numbers and personal email address, preferably at the top of the news release, along with the date on which it is released.
  • Email or hand-deliver your news release to members of the local media and influential bloggers several days before the event. Then, follow up with phone calls to reporters and editors the day before the event. If the event is to be held on Monday, place the reminder calls on Friday. Also, post the news release on your local’s website and Facebook page.
  • Sometimes, your news release won’t be announcing an upcoming event. It may be a statement from your local about an education issue pending before the Legislature or the school board, or it may be about a special program your local is conducting for students. The same writing principles apply. Post all news releases on your website and Facebook page as well as distributing them to the media and influential bloggers.
  • When possible, personalize an issue. Use members’ real-life stories or the potential impact on your students. For example: “The 22-1 class size waiver will increase kindergarten classes to 26 students or more and rob children of the individual attention they need from their teachers.”

Planning a news conference

At a news conference, the media all meet, at your invitation, to learn at the same time about one story. Call a news conference only if your issue is important. And, remember, an unexpected news event can wipe out attendance at your news conference, regardless of how well you plan it and how important your issue may be. If that happens, publicize your story with a written press release.

Here are some planning guidelines:

  • Try to hold your news conference in the morning (after 9:30 a.m.) or early afternoon (before 3 p.m.) on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. If no one in your local can participate during those hours – since you represent teachers and other school employees -- you can consider a news conference right after school lets out or on a Saturday morning. Keep in mind, the later in the day that you hold your event, the less likely you will get television coverage because TV stations have early deadlines. And, many TV stations have reduced staffs on weekends. The main point of having a news conference is to attract TV coverage. But be sure to invite the newspapers, radio stations and bloggers as well.
  • Pick a location that is safe, easy to reach and convenient for parking. Also, make sure adequate seating is available as well as lighting for the TV cameras. You also should consider a venue, if possible, that reinforces the issue you will be addressing. If appropriate, the venue could be outdoors near a school campus. But check the weather forecast and have a contingency plan. If you have to have permission to use the facility, make sure you obtain that.
  • Send a news release announcing the news conference and its general subject about a week or so ahead of time. Then, follow up the day before the event with reminder phone calls to the media outlets. If you schedule a news conference for a Monday, the follow-up reminder calls should be made the preceding Friday.
  • Find members of your local – no more than three -- who know the issue, have compelling stories to tell and are comfortable before TV cameras to address the media. Your president or media coordinator should plan on opening the news conference, introducing the issue and the speakers. Plan on the entire event, including time for reporters’ questions, lasting no longer than 30 minutes. Keep everyone’s speeches short, with sound bites.
  • Rehearse the event ahead of time, if possible.
  • Prepare a media kit that includes a news release, fact sheet, and background information about your issue, your local and your news conference participants. It should be put into a paper folder and generally not be longer than five or six pages.
  • If appropriate, prepare well-designed charts, graphs, and other visual aids – props that will look good on television.
  • Arrange for members of your local to shoot photographs and video of the news conference for posting on your website.
  • Round up teachers, parents, children and other allies to attend the news conference. But save the first row or two of seats for the media. Ask your allies to plan on filling in the back or sides of the room.

Conducting a news conference

  • Display the TSTA/NEA logo on the podium.
  • The local’s media coordinator should greet the journalists covering the event and give them media kits as they arrive. If you want to make sure you have updated contact information for every reporter, you could ask them to register at a sign-in table. But this is optional, and if a reporter doesn’t want to sign in, respect his/her wishes.
  • Start on time. Your local’s president or media coordinator should introduce himself/herself, thank the media for attending, briefly outline the issue and introduce the other speakers in turn.
  • After all the statements have been made, open the floor to questions. When there are no more questions, thank them for coming. Remember the 30-minute limit.
  • Some reporters may want to linger and ask questions they did not want to share with their competitors. Answer them if you wish, but remember to stay on message and don’t get careless with your answers. You are still on the record, and some cameras and recorders are still rolling.
  • Send media kits, or at least email the basic news release, to reporters who didn’t attend the news conference. And, post the news release on your website and Facebook page.

Writing letters to the editor

  • Decide your letter’s target audience. That will help determine its content.
  • Keep your letter short. Many newspapers have a word limit. Find out what it is for the newspaper to which you are writing, and don’t exceed it.
  • Watch your facts. Keep your letter accurate.
  • When signing your letter, identify yourself as a member of TSTA and your local.
  • Proofread your letter carefully. Double check your spelling, grammar and punctuation. You represent teachers!
  • Avoid profanity, libel and personal attacks.
  • Include your complete contact information with your letter.
  • Email your letter, if possible.
  • DO NOT send multiple copies of canned letters because they will end up in the editor’s wastebasket.
  • Encourage members who are fluent in Spanish to write letters to Spanish-language newspapers.

Seeking newspaper editorial support

  • Write a detailed letter to the editorial page editor, explaining why your local’s position on an issue is good for students and for the community.
  • Ask the editor if he will schedule a meeting for your local with the newspaper’s editorial board.
  • If a meeting is scheduled, your local’s top leaders and a few trusted community allies should attend.
  • Use the letter you wrote to the editorial page editor as a source of talking points for the meeting.

Tips for handling controversy

Some issues are more controversial than others. The same do’s and don’ts of media engagement, as outlined above, apply when your local is in the midst of a political or community controversy, but other guidelines also are important:

  • Consider whether the controversy will go away or die out on its own, whether your response will prolong it.
  • Consider ignoring the controversy, but only if that does not make your local’s situation worse.
  • If you need to respond to a controversy, gather facts and figures so you can respond quickly. Use compelling facts and persuasive logic.
  • Have documents and other supporting evidence readily available, if possible. Post these documents and other evidence on your website to give reporters and the public easy access to them.
  • Prepare to respond to leading, difficult, tricky, even nasty questions from the news media and the public.
  • Know that restating misperceptions and wrong information reinforces them, rather than rebuts them.
  • Expose hidden motives and agendas of critics.
  • Avoid personalizing the controversy. Stick to the issues.
  • Identify your actual and potential allies and consider working with them on a common plan to counter the controversy.

Crisis Communication Planning

All of a sudden, out of nowhere…

  • You are grading papers at home one evening when your cell phone rings. A reporter from your local newspaper informs you that criminal charges have been filed against one of your members for allegedly having an illegal sexual relationship with an underage student. He asks for a comment. This is not a mere controversy. This is a crisis because the integrity or reputation of your local is potentially at stake.
  • An inappropriate response -- You yell an obscenity at the reporter before hanging up and throwing your cell phone across the room.
  • An appropriate response -- You ask the reporter if you can call back in a few minutes, then you contact your local’s Crisis Communication Team to develop a response.

The Crisis Communication Team

  • The team should include key decision-makers in your local who are prepared on short notice to work with the local’s president to quickly develop a response to a communications crisis and decide who the spokesperson should be. Generally, the president is the logical spokesperson.
  • Members of the team should have each other’s personal contact information – keep it updated – and be able to reach each other quickly. This is essential when a crisis erupts.

How to respond to a crisis

  • Reply to the media as quickly as possible. If you try to ignore the situation or the media, the crisis may get worse.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Don’t stonewall. Don’t mislead. Don’t speculate.
  • In cases of alleged criminal behavior, such as the example cited here, say something to the effect that. “We regret that these charges were filed, but (name of member) is entitled to his/her day in court. We will wait for the justice system to work.”
  • Stick to your prepared statement. Don’t answer hypothetical or speculative questions from reporters and, under no circumstances, say anything that remotely suggests that TSTA or your local condones criminal behavior.

Recognize good education coverage

  • If you read a newspaper article or a blog, see a television story or listen to a radio report that appreciates public education and the work of teachers and other school employees, email your thanks to the reporter.
  • Also consider nominating his/her story for a TSTA School Bell Award. They are presented each year at the statewide House of Delegates meeting. Look for “awards” on www.tsta.org for details.