By Elizabeth Cowles Johnston 2014-08-19 15:21:28
Discover how to leverage hot media topics and proactively promote your positive messages. The sun is starting to rise as you shuffle out of bed and get the morning routine underway. The transition back to the school year schedule is settling in. There are lots of little mouths to feed today, starting in an hour or so with the breakfast line. You’re excited about a few new menu items the kids already have embraced with happy smiles. It’s going to be a good day. You flip on the television to catch a few news highlights before heading out the door. Distracted and listening with only half an ear, until you catch it—the words “school lunch” make you do a double-take. You grab the remote, turn up the volume and listen closely. No matter how many times you hear, read or see a negative or misleading school lunch story in the news, it gets to you. “Why do they always talk about something wrong that’s happening somewhere else? Why don’t they ever report about the great things our schools are doing?” For centuries, the nature of news has been that it is often led by the most dramatic and eye-catching headline. Unfortunately, the everyday “good stuff” simply attracts less attention, and media bean counters know this translates into switched channels, turned pages and closed web pages. When it’s your profession that’s in the hot seat, the risk of negativity tainting your own good efforts is maddening. But don’t sit back and just let it happen. You can use national stories—even the bad ones—to tout your own accomplishments. The key is to react quickly and provide your media contacts with a local angle on the national headlines. All news has the potential to become good news, giving well-deserved positive attention to your program. Ready to be Johnny (or Jill) on the Spot? How do you start? There are a few basic ways to communicate with members of the media when you are reacting to current news stories. Whether you’re working through your school district’s communications contact or with district/school nutrition staff to reach out to reporters on your own, one of the most important elements is time. The faster you can connect with your local media contacts on a state or national story, the more interested (and more likely) they will be in following up with your pitch. But before you jump on the phone or send that e-mail, make sure you are prepared to talk to reporters about the topic that’s causing all the attention! Some of this homework can be completed well before the opportunity even arises. Start by reviewing all the online resources available at www.schoolnutrition.org/PR. In particular, check the “Talking Points and Customizable PR Tools” link, as it is updated regularly as national news breaks. A good next step is to create your own school/ district PR toolkit. You can use many of the resources from SNA to get started. The goal is to have easily accessible resources at your fingertips in advance of the next breaking news story. You will be familiar with the material, which should need only minor tweaks to customize to the current news topic. Feel welcome to contact the media relations director at SNA Headquarters (firstname.lastname@example.org) for late-breaking resources. To build your own PR toolkit, create folders (both paper and digital) that you will fill with a variety of go-to resources. Reflect on common topics that tend to make national and regional headlines, so that you can be prepared the next time these appear. Start to gather details about your messages related to the following suggested topic areas: healthy school meals, federal/state nutrition standards, competitive foods rules, ingredients, plate waste, food safety, food allergies, charge policies, student acceptance/ participation, procurement, recycling/waste, professionalism and ethics—and any others that you identify! What goes in your toolkit folders? Here are some recommendations: Talking Points. These are the messages that you want to relay to media; consider them your notes that you will review as you prepare for media interviews. Talking points should be written in short one- to two-sentence statements, prioritized with the most important information you want to be conveyed in the resulting news story. Think of it this way: If you only had 5-10 seconds on TV or a sentence or two in an article, this is what you’d want people to know. Examples. Prepare some specific factual and visual examples you can share about each of your hot topics. For example, to capitalize on a news story about food allergies, you should have the details of your allergy plan ready to share, providing a few concrete examples of how that plan has helped students in the past. Menu items that demonstrate your creative planning, recipes that have proven popular, positive feedback you have received from parents—all of these real-world examples are the colorful details that local reporters need to make the tie to the national news. Facts and Figures. All kinds of “hard” facts are critical elements in compelling the media to tell your story—and making your case to the public. Some of the basic facts that media is reliably interested in hearing include the number of students you serve, free/reduced participation rates (this may need to be explained; see “That’s Easy for You to Say” on page 34), new/recent legislative requirements, community/school-based partnerships, costs and recent trends or changes in the program. Choosing the Right “Channel” Now that you have your reference materials in place, it’s time to reach out and connect with local media. But do you know exactly what you’re asking for—and the best approach to take? There are many ways to make contact with reporters, depending on your available time, resources and comfort level. Start with one opportunity at a time. What’s the story being told, who’s telling it and what are the best resources you have to present your positive angle? Let’s say it was a TV segment that showed students leaving open campuses, preferring to buy and eat lunch offsite. You take deserved pride in the strong participation at your high school campus. So, what are the best resources to tell that story? Photos of dining areas and points of sale? TV interviews with students? Newspaper articles? Response letters? It’s your decision, but let’s take a look at some approaches to help you understand the opportunities. TV. A negative story about how one school cafeteria handles unpaid meal charges is highlighted on the network news. You want to reassure your community about the policy you have in place to protect affected students, while maintaining fiscal responsibility. You’ve discussed this topic at numerous board of education meetings and made a presentation to the PTA on the same issue. You have a policy in place. Your facts are in order. You can offer a timely example of sensitivity training you conducted with staff just last month. What’s next? Since the story originated as a TV news piece, you should focus initial efforts on the same medium. Call local TV stations and request the news assignments desk. You can explain that you saw that their network reported on the issue, or tell them that you want to provide resources if they are interested in how local school programs handle similar scenarios. Offer an interview with you or your supervisor/colleague. Reference your top talking points and provide a timeline of your activities relating to this issue (in this case, the board meeting, PTA presentation and staff training). Ask if they are interested in any specific follow-up details. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t bite and no follow up develops. You’ve made an important connection! The more you reach out showing reporters, editors and producers that you can offer relevant resources for their viewers, the more likely they will be to turn to you first when the next story breaks. Letters to the Editor. The large local newspaper wrote a negative article about school meals, but never interviewed you. The reporter spoke with a few parents and one of the new school principals. The story failed to mention the latest new regulations and certainly didn’t capture the innovative initiatives you and your colleagues have launched to maintain student participation and address rising costs. You’re frustrated that the coverage has so many missing details, inaccuracies and unbalanced perspectives. One recourse is to write a letter to the editor. The first step is ascertaining submission details. Most newspapers will include this information within their online Opinion Section(s), with specific criteria for the process. For example, typical letters to the editor are short, between 150-250 words. You always want to reference the original article in your response. Don’t be afraid to note exactly what they got wrong or missed; use brief details to reinforce your talking points. Op-eds. There’s been some persistent buzz in different media outlets about procurement practices for school meals. You haven’t been contacted by any local media, which hasn’t really jumped on this story beyond regurgitating some public statements. Still, you know that some misperceptions are being circulated. Consider submitting a general response piece called an op-ed. A longer form than a letter to the editor, the op-ed isn’t necessarily written in response to a previously published story. But it does need to tie to relevant issues or topics, and offer hard facts and examples, and is a great opportunity to provide a controlled, written forum for your messages. Op-eds tend to run an estimated 750 words, but they need to be chock full of detail! You also want to ensure content is original; most media will publish op-eds only if they have not been published elsewhere. It’s generally acceptable, however, to resubmit an op-ed to another outlet, if the first media target declines to publish it. Cafeteria Site Visits. Inviting reporters for a first-person look at your program can be an extremely effective way to correct inaccurate perceptions. In addition, consider inviting members of the media to participate in special events, such as food shows and student taste-test panels. Suggest they serve as guest judges of recipe challenges. And be sure to invite them to celebrate National School Lunch and Breakfast Weeks and School Lunch Hero Day. Whether you’ve extended an invitation in response to existing coverage or you want to introduce members of the media to something new happening, you will need to organize the logistics of the visit in advance. Everything from the visual state of your site to the menu of the day to the necessary permissions and background details should be thought through. For more details about prepping for a cafeteria site visit, see “Let’s Go to the Videotape!” on page 22. Newsroom Visits. Most school nutrition operations have great stories to show and tell! So, if the media won’t come to you, take your cafeteria to them. Select a few meals or menu items that best represent student favorites made with healthy ingredients. Call your local newsroom and see if there is interest in a personal taste-test of school meals being served in local communities. There are a number of ways to “deliver” food to broadcast and print media. You could offer to host an in-studio TV interview that features sampling of menu items by the reporter or anchor. If the station doesn’t have a kitchen set, arrange for a large demo table (covered with a linen tablecloth). Another suggestion is to provide morning drive time radio hosts with a school breakfast to eat while on air. Create a simple fact sheet with details about the program components and all the benefits of eating breakfast at school. Hyper-local News Sites. Local newspapers have fewer staff members today than they did just three to five years ago. Consequently, many more opportunities have cropped up for readers to submit their own news, events and photos to local news websites and hyper-local community pages. Start by checking with your local newspaper and news websites. Browse the Internet for other sources and ask neighbors and friends if there are independent online sources they use for local news. Let’s say you want to raise awareness about a new farm-to-school partnership. To submit the news to one of these sites, it should be in a short news article format. Start your introduction paragraph identifying some of the specific new fruits and vegetables that will be on the school menu thanks to the new partnership. Offer some details about the farm, the participating school(s) and important supporting details, such as the requirement to offer produce items with every school meal. Consider including a quote or two from different people involved—maybe the farmer and a student, who can both share why they are so excited about this new program. Close the story with a link to your school nutrition web pages or to another resource where readers can find more details. Many of these sites have calendars where you can submit information on special events or celebrations. Providing photos with caption information is another great way to show off what you’re doing. Remember to include the who, what, where, when and why information in your captions. School/District Communications. Don’t forget about opportunities to provide stories and photos that can be disseminated by and through your school community. Whether it’s the school newspaper, in-school TV channel, monthly PTA/PTO newsletter, district e-mail updates and web pages or parent and community listservs and newsletters, there are many outlets that can help you spread the word when seeking to put a positive local spin on a hot national news story. Maximize Media Moments Although it takes time and effort to get on the radar of local media sources, your hard work can reap great rewards. With a little advanced planning, you can turn that next hot topic story into an opportunity to connect with valuable media partners and educate local communities all about your program achievements and challenges. Elizabeth Cowles Johnston is president of CJ Public Relations in Farmington, Conn., and a long-time partner in assisting SNA and several of its state associations with their media awareness efforts. She can be reached at (860) 676-2266, ext. 20, www.cjpr.com. Photography by www.istockphoto.com. TO YOUR CREDIT: For CEUs toward an SNA certificate, complete the “To Your Credit” test on page 60. SNAPSHOT • All news has the potential to become good news, giving positive attention to your program. • Build your own school/district PR toolkit with talking points, examples and hard facts about topics that often make national headlines. • There are many media outreach approaches, depending on your time, resources and comfort level.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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