Want to improve your district’s standing with the media? Here’s a startling concept: Try interviewing the reporters who cover your schools about what they value most in a web site‹and then give it to them!
Sounds absurdly simple, but a even a quick review of school web sites across the country shows that few districts are taking full advantage of the web when dealing with the press.
Here’re a few ideas to help get you started:
€ Make it easy to contact the district and key school personnel.
Provide eMail addresses whenever possible and make sure your staff is primed to answer media queries. On each page of your web site, post a “contact us” button or run your mailing address, phone, fax, and district eMail address in a small line on the bottom. You don’t want your audience to have to hunt for a phone number and street address. Ritenour School District in St. Louis, Missouri, has a fresh, inviting home page that constantly seeks input from its visitors.
€ Keep your media and district news pages up-to-date.
A wise sage once told me that credibility with the news media is like virginity: you only lose it one time.
Elliott Levine, director of communications for the Lawrence Public Schools in Lawrence, N. Y., updates his web site daily. The result? Because “what’s new” is really new (and not a month old), reporters and other web surfers are more likely to come back to the site again in the near future.
€ In the rush to get the good news out about your teacher of the year or an award-winning student, don’t forget the basics.
Most reporters, and parents, want to see a map of the district’s boundaries, where schools are located, and the principals’ names and phone numbers or eMail addresses.
Tell people what city and state you’re in. Remember, your web audience is world-wide. Remember also to list your area code with every phone number. It’s amazing how many otherwise useful web sites forget this important detail.
Other essential facts are: enrollment, student-teacher ratio, operating budget, test scores (especially the average ACT/SAT scores), and graduation and/or drop-out rates. Parkway School District in St. Louis does a great job of this via its “Data Sheet.”
€ Package your news and information just for the news media in a special section.
One of the best examples of this strategy I’ve found is the San Diego City Schools’ home page.
San Diego’s “In the News” section is thorough. In addition to a round-up of breaking headlines in education, you can also find current news releases, awards, recognitions, updates on the superintendent search, recent board actions, and staff news.
€ Add value to your web site by providing links to other educational resources.
Time-pressed reporters will thank you‹and visit your site often‹if you make it easy for them to link-up with web sites of relevance and experts you trust.
San Diego employs this powerful public relations tactic to its advantage, as does the El Paso School District. The El Paso site provides links to other web sites where reporters can find city information, helpful education research information, and teacher and student projects of merit.
€ Find out what the internet reporting policies are for the news media you deal with the most, and tailor your site accordingly.
For example, many news outlets don’t allow their reporters to use the internet as their only or primary source. Some reporters will want to verify a contact by phone or eMail. On the other hand, articles published by other news outlets or credible organizations that are “reprinted” on the net are fair game and can often be quoted as a reliable source.
€ Finally, ask the reporters who cover your district what web sites they have bookmarked.
By finding out what web sites local reporters use to monitor national news and track industry trends, you might be able to get a jump on providing interview possibilities and feature ideas that showcase your schools and your staff.
When I asked our local newspaper’s education reporter about her favorite sites, for example, I found that many related to early childhood development. I took this as my cue to send her some information about a special project in one of our area preschools.
You’ll also find out where your local reporters are looking for news stories. Chances are, if charter schools or early intervention for at-risk students are headlining the news in New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., it’s going to “play in Peoria” as well.
And you’ll know whether or not your own web address is among your reporters’ bookmark. If it’s not, this might be the right time to think about making some changes.
Ritenour School District
Lawrence Public Schools
Ferguson-Florissant School District
Parkway School District
San Diego School District
El Paso School District