Principals today have a tremendous challenge and responsibility to communicate with various constituent groups regularly. Our job is to: 1) brand our schools as we tell our story and highlight celebrations and successes; 2) provide information during and reassurance following a crisis; and 3) inform the public about legislative issues having an impact on the local school to mobilize resources and support. In this information age, the principal must embrace a new role: moderator of the information hub.

During my three decades in education, I have seen a significant change in the platforms that are used and how news, information, and communication are conveyed. While site-based social media and information broadcasting platforms have become the norm, the public still actively consumes information from outside sources: television, print, online news, social media posts, and YouTube channels.

In the current paradigm, the media is too often regarded as a purveyor of fake news or fraud with slanted viewpoints, political leanings, or hidden agendas. I have found that the exact opposite is true. Journalists, public information officers, and media professionals seek information simply to fulfill their obligation to inform the public.

Principals need to cultivate a good relationship with the media for the impact it will make on both the school and education at large. My favorite phrase from NASSP is the goal to “Educate, Motivate, Advocate.” Developing that good working relationship with media allows a principal to educate the public both during and following a crisis, motivate involvement and commitment to the school in the branding of our schools and telling our stories, and advocate for educational reform to mobilize resources and legislative support.

Principals cannot allow their first and only meeting with the media to be at the height of a crisis or a response to a negative situation. Both principals and media personnel need to see one another as a supportive resource, rather than adversaries. We must reach out, make connections, and build relationships. Develop a working relationship that helps members of the media understand all the hats you wear and, at the same time, validates their role as providers of information to the consuming public.

What Journalists Want

Journalists and media personnel place great value on a working relationship that is built on trust and credibility. Remember, they are people first. They are individuals who, just like all of us, have a job to do in  order to provide for themselves and their families.

Consider these three things media personnel look for:

  1. Honesty. When media staff report stories, they want factual, reliable information. It is essential that principals are upfront and honest. We must be open with what we can share and, if there is some area or content that we cannot share, we must be very clear about why and then provide guidance detailing
  2. Accessibility and availability. The media wants you to be available and accessible not only when covering a crisis or emergency, but also when there is a newsworthy educational item. They are looking for someone who can give them an example of an impact in a quick soundbite. Communicate with your district public information officer to ensure you are not overstepping any boundaries. I make it a point to always have position statements or the current NASSP legislative fact sheets handy when meeting with the media, and they are accustomed to using me as a resource.
  3. Recognition for a job well done. Just as all individuals appreciate recognition for their service, so do media personnel. No one wants to be taken for granted. Don’t hesitate to send them a thank-you note for their time or coverage for an event or issue.

Cultivating and Maintaining a Relationship

Build a rapport of trust and credibility by sharing who you are both as a principal and as a community member. Invite members of the media to tour your campus and provide a variety of dates and times so that they feel valued, rather than telling them what works best for you. Take a moment to find out if they have a son or daughter in your school district or campus—they may have a shared issue or passion.

In the summer prior to school starting, I host an on-site breakfast for media and the chamber of commerce and provide a tour and a very brief presentation about our school. I share my involvement with the state association and NASSP and offer to be a resource to the media when education issues are in the news cycle. I end the session with a site brochure, giving highlights of our prior year, business card exchanges, and a gift bag from our school with spirit items as well as “goodies” from our various career and technical education programs.

I also involve them in a school function that validates their role or a passion they have shared. Before ever having a crisis to address or a request for coverage, invite them to participate in career day or to be involved in a presentation in their area of interest. Be sure to send a thank-you note for when there’s been supportive coverage of your school. Offer public recognition and social media postings to highlight that supportive partnership. Finally, update the media regularly with calendars of events and activities, and make them aware of some “feel good” human interest stories as well.

Reaping the Benefits

As a result of building a relationship with all of the local media personnel in my community, we have been able to share some of our school programs to offer opportunities for community members to participate in career and technical education (CTE) internships. As our school and district provided meals and resources to our community during the COVID-19 pandemic, that same relationship allowed me to share details with both the local news outlet and the city communications director for both television and social media live broadcasts in order to support our families across the district. By cultivating a positive relationship with county, state, and federal lawmakers offices’ communication directors, we have also been able to provide information and resources for their electronic communications and social media broadcasts that revolve around education issues.

Our city has a director of communications who does a weekly live feed on Facebook as well as an online city newsletter. Building a relationship with her has allowed me an additional platform to keep parents informed and provides an opportunity to communicate with city departments to open some community service options for my students.

One of our local news journalists—upon her retirement—now mentors young women at my school in a local chapter of the nationally known Ophelia Project. Two communications directors now provide internship opportunities to students in my CTE media production arts and creative technology program. When we have faced challenges with a campus evacuation and potential health scare, not only was the story covered, but it was covered with the intent of “how can we help?” It has never been a story built on shock value or negative focus.

Taking the time to build a relationship with the media will not only result in a mutually beneficial platform for school celebration, policy advocacy, or information communication but also will help with your school’s image and open your school to resources and support for student success.

Derrick Lawson is the NASSP state coordinator for California. He is also the director of the Principals Academy within the Association of California School Administrators. Reach him at [email protected].

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Communication

Advocating for School Needs
You can advocate for your students’ and school’s needs with the members of the community and other stakeholders. Your communications can inspire buy-in and action, particularly related to the need for improvement efforts. Strategies include:

  • Developing a multifaceted strategy to share school accomplishments (e.g., newsletters, social media, local newspapers and television, community meetings)
  • Inviting district leaders, real estate agents, and members of the press into your building so that they can observe accomplishments firsthand
  • Collaborating with local and national organizations and associations (such as NASSP) to bring your voice to policy conversations at the local, state, and national levels

Communication is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.