School officials whose names are in the Rolodexes of local reporters had better bone up on how President Clinton's plan to reduce class sizes would affect their districts, advises Douglas Stone, the director of communications at the California Department of Education.
National initiatives often spark local media coverage, Mr. Stone said, and too often school leaders are unprepared for queries from the press.
"The districts that have been more prepared, with a game plan and having a relationship with the media, stand to do better than those that do not," he said.
Mr. Stone has written a book to help communications professionals--especially school officials who get that role by default--foster a good working relationship with the press.
The topics in the 176-page, step-by-step manual include holding press conferences, handling interviews, using media outlets to project a message, and managing the communications aspect of a crisis.
Since joining the California education department in 1996, Mr. Stone, 44, has helped craft its statements to the media on topics such as single-gender academies, Ebonics, campus violence, and controversial curriculum proposals. He also has advised California districts on how to talk to the press.
Before that, he was the director of California Assembly Television and the media director for the Assembly's Democratic Caucus.
Mr. Stone said school leaders who must deal with the media should make it their business to understand the news business and know personally the newspaper, TV, and radio reporters who cover their schools.
They should meet regularly with media representatives, "not just when you have a story," Mr. Stone said.
Officials should give the press a communications plan that lists a single contact person who should be called in the event of a crisis. They should be firm and direct when explaining their point of view and avoid confrontation and hostility.
Above all, Mr. Stone advised, they should always be honest, though they need not volunteer information, and they should be cautious when going off the record with reporters they don't know.
To order Talking the Talk: A Practical Guide for Effective Media Relations, send $13 plus $4.95 for shipping and handling to Publications Division, Sales Office, California Department of Education, P.O. Box 271, Sacramento, CA 95812-0271; (800) 995-4099.
--ANDREW TROTTER [email protected]