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How to Improve Your School District's Public Relations
Morgan Delack

Did you know that earned media placement is a key component to your public relations strategy and also essential to gaining community trust? According to repeat Nielsen studies, earned media like newspaper articles or television news segments top the list of most trusted commercial sources. 

While it’s true that you should tell your own story through your website, social media accounts, community newsletters, etc., that shouldn’t be the only way of sharing news about what’s happening in your schools. So what does this mean for your district? You need a plan for publicity with your local (and national!) news media outlets – and it all starts with relationships. 

Having spent seven years in television and digital media, I know a thing or two about what it takes to get a story picked up. I’ve developed these nine tips for working with the media that will help your school district get the public recognition it deserves.

1. Always treat the media as if they are your customers

Members of the media are just doing their jobs. They are not the enemy or someone you should feel like you are working against. Making friends with them and respecting the work that they do is an important step forward in building a relationship. 

If a reporter knows that you will respect their time, deadlines and work they do, they are more likely to: 

  • Reach out to you to cover positive news stories
  • Pick up stories you pitch to them 
  • Think of you for comment on broader education topics, getting your district media coverage even when the story isn’t directly about you! 

Respect is a two-way street. Treat the media like your top customer and they will offer you the same respect in return. 

2. Get to know the publication you are pitching to

Not all publications are interested in the same stories, and they each have their own unique personalities. You’ll have a better likelihood of getting picked up by the press if you do some homework and understand what they are looking for. Cater your pitch to their needs and preferences. 

For example, a story I might pitch to a monthly magazine may have more of a feature flair to it. But something I’d share with the daily newspaper could be shorter and less evergreen. 

Taking the time to understand each publication and what they are looking for in a story will help your odds of being picked up!

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3. Be mindful of a reporter or editor’s time (or lack of time)

Think your schedule is packed? So is a reporter’s. They are also working on multiple deadlines with tight turnarounds, every day.

I tend to put the local reporter's numbers on speed dial and ALWAYS answer when they call. If you don’t get back to them in a timely manner, they’ll either move on to quote a source that is less reliable or leave your point of view out of an article altogether. 

And if the media is calling you about a fun feature story that highlights your district in a positive way, you can pretty much kiss that opportunity goodbye if you don’t answer or call them back promptly.  

Lesson learned: don’t screen your media phone calls.

4. Never underestimate the power of sharing a pre-written story

Most of your local reporters are working in short-staffed newsrooms with limited resources (sound familiar?). Instead of pitching a concept for them to write on their own, why not send them a pre-written story they just need to pick up and publish? 

If you’re providing high-quality images or video and a well-written story, most reporters will appreciate the offer. You may be surprised how often this type of content gets published.

An easy way to showcase a library of options for your local media is to build a news section on your website and email it out to reporters on a weekly basis, or when new stories are published. 

Mt. Lebanon School District has a great news section, built in Finalsite’s content management system, Composer.

Screenshot of Mt Lebanon media relations

The page allows you to sort by keyword and date, making it easy for any member of the media (or public!) to find what they need. 

These types of pages are easy to build, and can also be repurposed as dynamic content in your newsletter with a simple click of a button in Finalsite Messages.

5. Never say “no comment”

The dreaded “no comment” answer is something most public relations experts dread. "No comment" is never the right thing to say, even in a controversial or negative news story. Not only does it sound defensive (what could they be hiding?), but you’d be passing up an opportunity to share key talking points about your district with the public. 

Remember: the question that is asked is never as important as the answer provided. Take every media interview as a chance to spread the good word about your school community.

6. Make it easy to find your contact information online

Does your website have a public relations or media relations page? If not, this should be high on your list of website improvements. If you’ve ever had a crisis situation occur and the media starts calling the high school secretary instead of the communications office, you’ll understand why. 

When a crisis happens, the media will go straight to your website to both find information about the incident and to locate the media contact person’s information. If they can’t find either one of those things, they reach out to the wrong people and start publishing potentially incorrect information instead of facts.

Screenshot of Highline Public Media

Here’s a good example of a school district with a media page that checks all the boxes. Highline Public Schools has a “press room” which makes it simple for reporters to know where to look for information.

The page prominently features press releases and calls out the district media contact, including an after-hours phone number to urgent requests- awesome!

7. Be careful about pitching the same story to every news outlet

Most news outlets don’t want to publish the same content as the competitors down the road. You’ll have more success landing media placements if you are selective about who you pitch a story to. Choose one newspaper or magazine to share a story with and let them know it’s exclusive to them, should they choose to publish or air it.

Remember, reporters, editors and producers sometimes get hundreds of pitches a day. There’s little that will make them click “delete” faster than seeing their competitors on the list of recipients of your story pitch email.

8. Never ask to review a story ahead of time

This unfortunately happens quite often and leaves the media with a bad taste in their mouths. When you ask to review a professional’s work before it is published, it undermines their credibility. Agreeing to a media interview or article also means you agree to allow them to do their job from start to finish. 

It can be scary to put a lid on your innate copyeditor instincts. Save this for your own content produced in-house and let the reporters do their own jobs.

Reporter conducting interview

9. Don’t over react to a misquote or error

Reporters are human and may publish something that is incorrect on occasion. It’s easy to overreact to these things and in turn, jump down the reporter’s throat for misquoting you or a team member, or providing details that aren’t completely factual. 

When these things occur, approach them lightly and with kindness. Unless it’s a huge mistake I wouldn’t recommend calling them out on it. If it’s a big deal, a quick phone call thanking the reporter for the story (start with kindness and appreciation) and a mention of your concern without being aggressive will be well-received and typically result in a correction being issued. 

Tread lightly here. If you get into the habit of calling a reporter for every little thing you find wrong with their story, they are going to stop coming to you for quotes and comments. That could be a bigger blunder in your public relations strategy than letting small things slide.

Key Takeaway

In today’s noisy world, earned media placement is more important to your public relations strategy than ever before. By using these nine tips, you’ll not only build excellent relationships with the media, but ensure your district receives recognition for all of the incredible work you are doing!

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Morgan Delack Headshot

Morgan Delack is Finalsite's VP of Communications, leading the marketing team's public school content, branding initiatives and professional development events. Morgan's background is a mixture of public school communications and television journalism, having worked in both industries for several years. She was named among NSPRA's 35 under 35 and has earned two Emmy Awards for her work in broadcasting. Morgan lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two kids.

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