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Working with the media: a complete guide

There is a distinction between a media crisis which blows up out of nowhere and the ‘business as usual’ issues that a college press or public relations officer deals with on a regular basis and can plan for like award ceremonies, the appointment of a new principal, the introduction of new courses, or even something as major as the building of a new campus.

However, if you take your eye off some of the day-to-day issues you could be setting yourself up for a crisis. For example, there may be an increasing level of poor student behaviour which boils over into public displays of violence which can damage the college’s reputation and have an impact on recruitment. Staff and union unrest over pay, conditions or a programme of restructuring and redundancies can turn into strike action during exam time, leaving students and their parents angry and the media knocking on your door.

If you want help in forward planning to avoid a crisis, or on reputation management, please refer to our guide to on crisis communications.

Below is some advice on media interviews, and no comment and off-the-record discussions. In this complete guide, you'll also find advice on building strong relationships with the media, working with the media on campus, how to make a complaint to, or about the media, internal messages, and working with stakeholders.

    Media interviews

    If one of your senior managers is doing an in-depth or profile interview, it is common for the PR to ask the reporter to indicate what sorts of things they want to cover before the interview. You need to gather as much information from the reporter as you can about the story, the angle, who else they are talking to and what they hope to get from this interview. You also need to discuss practicalities of where, when and how much time is required for the interview and whether it will be over the phone or in person.

    Make sure to ask the following questions:

    • If it is for broadcast media, will it be pre-recorded (on film or just sound for radio) or live on air?
    • Who will be conducting the interview?
    • If the item is ‘live’ on air, is it just a one-to-one interview with the presenter, or is it a discussion involving other interviewees?
    • If so, who, and what angles are they expected to take and how long will the interview or discussion last?

    Feed back this information to your interviewee and consider any hidden angles the reporter may be interested in and how to address them.

    Take the time to gather supporting information or statistics your interviewee may need and agree some key media messages the college will want to get across with the interviewee, keeping to five points maximum.

    If it is an important interview, it sometimes helps to do a quick run through of the main question areas in advance – but not all managers need or appreciate this. It is also common practice – though sometimes unpopular with the media – for a PR to sit in on important interviews, often simply to take note of what is said. Again, some senior managers may not see the need for this, but if the interview is on an issue of reputational importance, they may welcome support on how to steer the interview away from sensitive issues. This may depend on your own seniority and the relationship between the communications team and the executive team.

    ‘No comment’ and ‘off the record‘ discussions

    One advantage of having a strong relationship with your local media is that you can have ‘off the record’, not for publication conversations with them about the trickier issues so you are able to explain the context and background without the full, sensitive details appearing publicly.

    This demands trust on both sides. It also means you need to understand the terms ‘no comment’, ‘off the record’ and ‘for background briefing purposes only’.

    We advise against a ‘no comment’ response as the media, and their audiences, interpret this as you having something to hide. Even if that means making a very generic, very boring statement, this is always better than no statement at all.

    Colleges are publicly funded and need to be as transparent as possible about their work without breaking confidences, terms or conditions of employment or when dealing with commercially sensitive information. Colleges are also subject to the Freedom of Information Act. If you are unable to comment on the specifics, explain why. Is it because the story centres on an internal disciplinary hearing, an employment or work tribunal or a court case involving a member of staff or a student? If so, the reporter will understand that you can only offer a broad comment for legal reasons. It’s better to confirm the basic facts and then explain you are unable to comment further.

    For example, a short statement could say: “We can confirm that a member of staff has been arrested and is due to appear in court today about allegations about an incident involving a weapon on campus. You will appreciate that as legal proceedings have begun, we are unable to comment further.”

    The arrest and court appearance are a matter of public record, and the media will get this information from the police or court officials. It is fine to confirm this, but you may not want to name the staff member due to a duty of care. However, the media will easily find this out. We have put together separate document on legal matters, but in brief once a case has become legally active, both you and the media are strictly limited in what you can say publicly or publish under the Contempt of Court Act.

    When you agree to give a reporter a background briefing, this means you and your college do not want to be quoted in a story but are prepared to give them some background information for context and balance. The reporter will then need to confirm this with another source if they want to use it. You will need to explain the reasons you don’t want to be quoted. For example, the college may be in the middle of negotiating a redundancy programme following funding cuts for adult skills provision. Trade union officers will be proactively contacting the media about why they are opposed to the plans, or an element of the plans. But if the negotiations have reached a very sensitive stage, the college may decide not to inflame the situation with public statements, preferring instead to keep staff and union representatives informed. However, it may be in the college’s interests for the media to be aware of the national funding cuts and the specific impact they’ve had on the college which has led to the redundancies. The reporter can include the college’s position in the article but without quotes.

    There is often confusion about what ‘off the record’ means. It may mean that you’re prepared to give them a background briefing, as above, but they will need to check the information elsewhere and seek quotes from other people/organisations. However, it can also mean that you are prepared for the information to be used without further checking, but not attributed to you/your college; you will give the reporter information on the understanding they do not quote you or link the info in any way to you or the college.

    The most important thing to remember is you must make it clear to the reporter that the information is ‘off the record’, and establish what exactly you mean by that, before you give them the information and get their agreement.

    Reporters do not like ‘off the record’ comments as they prefer to be able to attribute information to reliable sources. They generally only agree if they think you will not speak to them at all if they refuse. They will try to push you to allow them to use some of the information; if, on reflection, you decide you are happy for specific comments or facts to be made public and linked to you, be very clear what you agree they can use.

    For more information on building strong relationships with the media, working with the media on campus, how to make a complaint to, or about the media, internal messages, and working with stakeholders, click here.

    For any advice or support, please contact Press and PR Manager, Kate Parker on