Avoiding Media Madness

Facing a major crisis is a demanding enough challenge for education professionals, but out of control media coverage can further exacerbate an already difficult situation. While it is easy to criticize the media for the feeding frenzy that sometimes occurs when tragedy strikes, a proactive and professional approach to crisis media relations can minimize the damage. Working with hundreds of radio, newspaper and television organizations, ranging from local papers to major news organizations like 20/20, Good Morning America, the New York Times, BBC and Tokyo Broadcasting, has convinced me that careful preparation, combined with a positive but cautious attitude, can make a considerable difference in how organizations are presented in the media.

The following concepts have proven to be useful in working with the media.

    • Understand that reporting the news is a business driven by profit, and the media delivers what the American public wants. Understanding this aspect of the media, rather than reacting with anger, is important to retaining focus following a crisis.

    • Understanding the needs of the media can help you better manage media encounters. For example, asking reporters about their deadlines and other needs can be productive. If you cannot meet their deadlines, they will find other sources who may not be concerned about your organization’s interests. (This is one reason that it is important to have a designated point of contact for the media who does not have other responsibilities during a crisis. Television crews are looking for video that will catch a viewer’s eye while surfing channels, and newspaper reporters are looking for captivating quotes. Often, it is possible to provide reporters with both of these that are favorable to the goals of your organization. Reporters typically appreciate professionals who understand this and are cooperative.) This may be an opportunity for you to help put positive images forward in place of negative ones that may come from other sources.

    • Develop practical media policies, and make sure that all employees understand them. Having a teacher who has just experienced a crisis consent to a television interview without training and guidance could result in catastrophic damage. As an example, while many school and law enforcement officials were doing a commendable job in dealing with the media following the Columbine High School shooting and bombing, a panicked and shocked teacher was interviewed by a television crew and excitedly exclaimed that she had not received any training and that school officials were completely unprepared for the crisis. As the interview aired while the crisis was still unfolding, irreparable damage and additional panic occurred. Staff members who have not been thoroughly briefed on media policies and practices will often feel an unreasonable obligation to speak to the press following a crisis. This applies to personnel who answer the telephone as well. Statements made by any employee to the press are fair game and subject to appear on the front page of thousands of papers the next day.

    • Never lie to the media, being caught in a lie will often result in severely negative reporting.

    • Refer questions pertaining to public safety officials to the appropriate agency. School officials should not attempt to speak to issues concerning emergency response efforts, ongoing investigations and other matters better addressed by public safety agencies.

    • Never go“off the record.” Before you say anything to or in the presence of a reporter, decide if you would be comfortable seeing it on the evening news.

    • Be organized and proactive when dealing with the media. Anticipate the types of questions reporters may have, and be prepared to address them appropriately.

    • Remember, all that counts are the things that end up in the news. While you may have many great responses to questions during a 30-minute television interview, the public will probably only see a brief 10-second clip and a short summary from the reporter based on what they have learned about the incident.

By taking a realistic and proactive stance with the media, representatives from your organization can significantly affect the way the public perceives it. The pocket guide Jane’s Crisis Communications Handbook ( and click public safety) can provide an excellent crash course on effectively working with the media during times of crisis. Your responsibilities may someday include participating in dozens if not hundreds of media interviews in a short period of time — with little warning. Now is the time to prepare for this daunting but manageable task.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.