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Working with the local media to get your school stories heard

Managing the Media, Part 3

Breaking news with megaphone image

So, your teachers and staff are preparing for another great event. You worked hard to let your local media folks know about it and why you thought it would make a good coverage opportunity ahead of time. Despite the high hopes you had for a media frenzy, when the event kicked off, you and your camera were the only ones there to capture it. 

Many education professionals would be upset. Angry. Hurt. They’d bemoan the negative coverage they often get and say things like, “How come no one ever cares about all the good things going on around here?”  

Fortunately, that’s not your reaction. You know it’s called “earned” media for a reason. You know that even the best pitches for the most newsworthy events can still result in no coverage due to factors beyond anyone’s control. Most importantly, you aren’t ever going to let a no-show stop you from telling your story. The good news is you’ve already got everything you need to get the word out. 

In a previous post, I helped you think through different ways to communicate with the media. Media Alerts, Press Releases, and Submitted Stories were three big areas we tackled. This post is going to drill down deeper on Submitted Stories, as well as demonstrating how they all function together, along with your communication plan. 

Why should you listen to me about any of this? Well, first of all, you don’t have to—my daughter doesn’t really listen to me, and she seems to be doing fine. Of course, I’ve never been a teenage girl. But you know what I have been? A school communications and PR lead for an urban and a rural school district. Before that, I spent five years as a small-town community newspaper editor, and the three years before that as the primary education beat reporter. I’ve played this game from both sides, and I want to help break down the walls that are keeping you from getting your story out there. 

My goal is for you to get a ton of value out of this, and there’s just no replacement for a good old fashioned example. We’ve included a series of three samples that you might send to the media for this event I completely made up, the Growing Great pilot program at Piney Woods Elementary School. Check them out here.

Camera filming a meeting

Before the event

Ok, before we get to the act of creating the elements of your submitted story, we do need to set the stage a bit. Well, actually, you need to set the stage and get yourself ready to succeed. This does not happen the day of an event (more on that soon).

Communicate with stakeholders. Internally, you should be executing your communications plan for the event. Families and stakeholder groups should be receiving flyers, emails, social media and web posts, whatever you do. Generating buzz in your audience is more powerful than you may think. In the era of social media connectivity, that engagement can draw media interest before you even reach out. When you do pitch, high levels of engagement seen on social media promotions and high-quality graphic design in your materials can definitely help sway a decision-maker to cover the event. 

Get photographic release issues straight. Policies can be a bit different, but make sure you know the rules you need to respect. Work with your school’s administration to determine which students are on the no-publish photography list. Getting this information ahead of time (or at least at the event) will help you avoid those particular students as you take pictures. By front-loading that information, you don’t spend time taking pictures of the wrong students, only to find out later they are unusable. Of course, it’s hard to identify every student in the school, so make sure you have a plan to have someone else check behind you.

Send the media alert. Actually, I always like to come up with a reason to send two media alerts. That way, I’ve got something to send around 10–14 days out, and then another for the week of. You could just send it again or send a straight follow-up email, but that can be a bit annoying. Journalists can receive hundreds of coverage requests in a given week, so there should not be an expectation that they will reply promptly and directly to each one—even if you are local. Besides, saving a piece of information and then dropping it as the event nears creates some excitement and some elevation that might pull someone off the fence.

That said, the main goal of the second release is still all about reminding them. Media outlets are inundated with story ideas with so many possibilities. There’s not really such a thing as a slow news day. On top of that, many of the actual reporters/producers are early in their careers. They don’t always have good personal organization systems in place to manage themselves to a level where they’ll remember everything. That’s especially true in such a scattered and responsive industry. It’s always good to poke them with a stick. 

Of course, the biggest problem most schools have with getting the media out isn’t that the reporter forgets. The problem is that education professionals forget to ask. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sitting at my desk in the district office and gotten a call from a school asking for coverage of an amazing event that could draw media—and it starts in less than an hour. Definitely not going to happen, especially in a district an hour away from the closest news stations. Honestly, I’ve probably experienced that situation almost as often as a call two weeks out to ask how I can help promote an event. Even worse is when schools even forget to notify their families about an event until the week of. It’s not professional, it’s not okay, and it has to stop. If you are going to host an event, and it’s worth spending the time to set up, you must spend a little time planning your communications around it. 

Get the blessing to send the submitted story. In the process of inviting the media with the alert, you’re sure to get some regrets. That’s ok. It’s also your chance to offer the submitted story. When the reporter says they can’t make it, just reply politely that you understand, and add that you’d love to send some pictures and a write-up for them to consider. Putting this general plan in place ahead of time is a great way to avoid wasting time later. If they agree to it, it’s a big win! Of course, it’s just the beginning of the next round of work.  

You will need to think of yourself as their contractor for this assignment. Find out what they want, and especially when they want it. If they say they want it the same-day, then you need to figure out how to make that happen. Usually, that might mean a TV station that only want stills and some key facts. Basically, you will plan to just rework what you’ve already sent, add in a rough headcount and anything particularly notable, and send it on with your best pictures. Depending on deadlines, you might even need to do this before the event is over. So plan for everything—have all your gear to crank this out when they need it. 

Conversely, a weekly community newspaper that wants a submitted story may not need it for another week. You should not wait a week to give it to them, but once you finish the event and then finish storytelling for your audience, you need to go ahead and get it in a final format for the paper. Plan how you are going to do this instead of waiting until the newspaper is calling you about a hole they’ve saved you on page A5.

Prepare to tell your story. You should use those pre-event communications as a great way to start pre-writing your story. You already know what the big picture is, so there’s nothing wrong with having a few introductory and detailed paragraphs written ahead of time. If it’s a marquee event (teacher of the year announcement) or particularly timely or political, you might even have the whole thing written ahead of time. It’s not cheating; just make sure you proof it one last time after the event and before you send to allow you to edit for anything that didn’t really go the way you expected. 

Girl taking photos

At the event

Take some notes. Photos will be the most important thing you do at the event (other than any event-based responsibilities you have—hopefully none). You also need to get some words, though. If someone’s giving a speech, just jot down a key line or two from it. Pick one fun question, and ask it to a few students and parents, and write down some of the best answers. Having these in-hand will make the production stages much easier. Could you go find them later and ask the same questions? Sure you could, but it would cause significantly more headaches for you and for them rather than just capturing that feedback in the moment. Also, be sure to write down names of non-students you photograph or anyone you might not know.

Take too many pictures. If you are a professional photographer, you don’t need to take any of my advice, and you can skip this section. If, like the rest of us, you don’t really know what you’re doing, the first rule of thumb is to take a lot of pictures. Make sure to get plenty of your administrators and officials, but these won’t necessarily be the best images to publicize. Smiling faces of kids engaged in something loosely related to instruction is the highest form of school event photography. When I say too many pictures, I also mean different angles, orientations (horizontal and vertical), candid, posed, inside, outside, or whatever. You can’t go back and get them later. Better to get everything you can now. 

After the event

Tell your story in a variety of ways. (If you and your media connection agreed on a same-day delivery, skip ahead to Submitting to the media, and then come back to this later.) 

After a great event, you’re excited to get home and rest up after a long day. Understandable. Just remember that those images don’t do anyone any good just sitting on your camera’s card. Ideally, you will already have a post-event communications plan ready to go, and you will begin executing it immediately. 

For me, a good starting place immediately after the event is to upload the pictures and do a first-round look-see of what you got. If you can’t do all of the work on it right away, at least pick out a great shot or two and post to social media with messaging that conveys a great event and that more pictures will be coming in the morning. Again, you could have the post pre-written and in the draft stage ahead of time and just add in the picture(s) once you’ve taken them. 

Either way, by lunchtime the next day, you should be pushing out an engaging social media post (with pictures) that links back to a web post article with lots of pictures or a link to a gallery. Yes, that means you should have an article of some kind written within 24 hours (that’s why I support pre-writing what you can when you can). This page has huge value, because now you can send to your principal for school messaging, your superintendent to include in division messaging, and, of course, you can send it to the press—although that might not be your actual submitted story. 

Submitting to the media. At this point, you’ve told your story through your channels of communication. You have two options as far as what you send to the media: Press Release or Submitted Story. 

Generally, a press release would be more of a political thing handled at the division level, or a community-partnership sort of event for a school, but that’s not always the case. You can use these tools in many different ways, and you should do what works best for you, your story, and, most importantly, your media targets. A community weekly newspaper or online news site is much more likely than a metro daily to accept and run a submitted story. If you are working with a metro paper, you should probably stick to press release tactics and consider it part of your long-term relationship-building approach. 

The key differentiators of the press release are that it has a general story flow but doesn’t usually feel as creative as journalistic feature writing. A press release can either be intended to run as is or to serve as a dump of information that helps a reporter write a story of his or her own or both. As a result, sometimes it can be a bit heavy on the quotes or the numbers. It should use a certain formatting and be no more than two pages—ideally less than one. 

Meanwhile, the submitted story is your attempt to play reporter for the day. Within reason, you should be using your storytelling skills to inform and entertain, especially with your introductory paragraphs. The more the story feels like something that the outlet normally publishes, the more likely it is to get published. That makes sense, right?

Pictures are often the critical factor in determining the fate of your submitted story. Great picture with smiling and engaged kids? Maybe it goes to the front page, or at least gets a teaser there. Boring pictures of people posed and looking at the camera? Sounds like the designated Education page somewhere in the B section is where it’s going to end up. No pictures at all? Maybe in a couple weeks, they’ll have a hole they desperately need to fill, and they’ll stick it at the bottom of page that no one is really going to read. 

Be sure to offer a variety of pictures and include captions that identify all identifiable people. Don’t try to save yourself a few minutes by sending them the article and pictures and asking which ones they want captions for. The page designer could have a totally different view from your reporter contact of how the story will look visually (usually, a much better view) and could easily decide to go for a completely different approach than a reporter. This is the least efficient place to short cut, even though it seems a bit silly to make captions for 10 pictures when you know they won’t all run. If you were on their staff, you would be available to write the captions on deadline. But if they get to deadline and try to reach you, given your role, you probably won’t be available to give them what they need immediately. So do it ahead and count it as a win.

Taking full responsibility like this also ensures that it’s a good experience for them. That’s important because you should be playing the long game here. It’s not only about this one media placement; it’s about opening their pages to you and your school district’s messaging all the time. 

With the submitted story, you have a relatively rare opportunity in the PR world to produce your own content that pushes directly into the earned space of a media outlet. Do your best to take complete advantage of it by making all deadlines, keeping communications open and honest, and putting the work in to make good articles that readers in your community will enjoy. 

Key Differentiators and Elements of Media Submissions

Media Alert

  • Send before the event, typically twice
  • Journalistic 5 Ws are key, often broken out visually for the meat of the alert
  • Often includes logistical information to facilitate media visit (parking, check-in procedures, etc.)
  • Make a clear ask to attend both in the alert and in the body of the email you send
  • Media Alert Sample | Media Alert Template

Release

  • Similar to a story, but generally seeks to give info to expedite media story
  • Don’t be afraid to use a variety of quotes or push some key numbers
  • Aim for about a page in length; no more than two 
  • Release Sample | Release Template

Submitted Story

  • Greater level of journalistic writing creativity, especially in the beginning, transitions, and flow 
  • Must include pictures and captions of a variety of people, scenes, and orientations
  • Can be posted on school website with links from school social media platforms 
  • Communicate ahead of time with your targeted media outlets regarding specific needs
  • Submitted Story Sample

Greg Dorazio is a communications strategist with 15 years of experience as a reporter, editor-in-chief, and a school PR pro for both a rural and urban district. Now a communications consultant, he improves strategic storytelling through web, social media, design, and more for his clients in associations, public health, education, and small business.