By Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2014-08-19 23:49:53
Choose your words with care whenever speaking with a reporter. I’m glad you asked that question. The changes to the meal pattern certainly have proven a challenge, although we support the goal of feeding kids healthy meals and always have at our schools. Our ADP dropped quite a bit last year and, um, it’s a…well, it’s a challenge to make ends meet with the current reimbursement rate, considering we have a low free/reduced rate in this community and there are so many demands on our budget, what with rising indirect costs and pending professional standards rules requiring increased training in yet another unfunded mandate on schools. What? Oh, we’ve always trained our staff, they get regular food safety training in HACCP and…what’s HACCP? It’s a process of record-keeping and temperature taking—it’s kind of complicated to explain. But let me get back to your question about the meal pattern… You’ve worked in school nutrition for years, and you rightfully consider yourself an accomplished expert in this profession. But you shouldn’t blithely rely on that expertise to carry you through a media interview without proper preparation. Even with all the knowledge at your fingertips and the best intentions, you may come off as a gibberish-spouting mess. Take a few tips from school nutrition operators who have really had to practice to make perfect the art of the interview. Request questions in advance (for on-camera interviews) or for a little time to prepare a response (when a reporter calls for comment). “I tell [the producer] that ‘Our people aren’t used to being on camera, so they [are likely to] get scared or nervous. If you could give me an idea of what questions you’re going to ask…it will make the whole event come off better for us and you, too,’” explains Craig Weidel, SNS, area supervisor, Mesa (Ariz.) Public Schools. Jessica Shelly, MBA, REHS, SNS, foodservices director, Cincinnati Public Schools, offers another helpful tip that will guide you in your preparation efforts well before the interview even begins: “I always ask this question: ‘How many cameras are you bringing?’ If they tell me two, that’s a ‘gotcha’ story. They’re going to have a camera on the reporter and a camera on me, trying to get my reaction. If they say one camera, that tells me it’s a feel-good story.” Prepare your key messages in advance. You can talk for 20 minutes, and they’ll only show 10 seconds of the interview in the final piece, notes Shelly. The same is true for the number and length of quotes likely to appear in a written article. But you can control your own messages. Stay laser-focused on your key talking point(s); rehearse a few variations so that you can reinforce it multiple times without seeming to repeat yourself. Don’t allow yourself to get sidetracked and resist being pulled into a tangent—especially one for which you are less confident about your answer. If the interview is intended to address a particularly controversial topic, do a little role-playing rehearsal. Task a colleague to play the part of the reporter, doing her or his level best to catch you with your guard down and providing a, shall we say, more “candid” comment than you intended. This is not to suggest that all journalists seek the “gotcha!” quote, but rehearsing for the most aggressive questions will leave you polished and prepped for a professional response that says what you want an audience to hear or read. If a camera crew is coming to one of your schools, it’s quite possible that you won’t be the only one interviewed. Provide specific sound bites to those most likely to be asked for comment. This includes the kitchen manager, the principal and anyone with a perceived stake in the issue at hand. Shelly actually writes up 10-second blurbs and gives these to those on her team who might appear on air. Apply the KISS Principle: Keep It Short and Sweet. Remembering that only a few quotes actually get used, Shelly suggests taking a page from classic courtroom dramas, in which the witness is advised against elaboration. “What do you like best about the new regulations?” “What I think is so great about school meals is X.” Don’t go on at length—even when there are several legitimate points that could be made. You don’t want to risk that your key message becomes lost. Many of us, especially extroverts, see silence as a void that is aching to be filled. Make silence your friend. Don’t worry—the producer is not going to waste precious seconds on dead air; you have a lot more to lose by trying to fill the silence. “Trust me, I have said some things on camera, and as soon as I said it [I regretted it],” says Shelly. If you can’t resist the temptation of the void, she advises, “Fill it with a sound bite that you’ve practiced.” Avoid school nutrition jargon. You certainly know what a “reimbursable meal” is, but what does that term mean to a reporter from the general consumer press? What will it mean to an audience of parents or other stakeholders? And if a reporter is left to make the clarification in the story, will he or she get it right? At best you’ve diminished your message by unintentionally cloaking it in unfamiliar terminology— at worst, the story might go completely off the rails. Here are a few examples of common school nutrition lingo that are sure to elicit confused responses: • reimbursable meal • meal pattern • offer versus serve • ADP and average daily participation • competitive foods • a la carte • free/reduced eligibility rates • direct certification • Provision 1, 2, 3 • Community Eligibility Option • CRE • indirect costs • reimbursement rates • 6-cent qualification • alternate meals • HACCP • management companies Think about how to explain such terms as simply as possible. For example, instead of referencing “meal pattern changes,” discuss “new nutrition standards.” When explaining the challenge of new “competitive foods” rules, clarify that these are items available for individual purchase in the cafeteria and all foods available outside of the cafeteria. Keep striving to break terminology down to the barest essentials. Avoiding jargon is another reason to prepare your sound bites in advance; you need to become comfortable using language that doesn’t come as quickly or easily to you when you are discussing school nutrition topics. It’s not an easy task. You might want to practice by trying out revised phrases on family members and friends who aren’t in the school nutrition business. Check the toolkits, fact sheets and talking points developed by SNA and available online at www.schoolnutrition.org/pr. Still stuck? Contact SNA’s media relations team at email@example.com for help. On the other hand, when working with members of the media, it can be very helpful if you know their lingo. “It really impresses them,” reports Shelly, citing an example of making suggestions to a camera crew about what could be used for their “B roll” (background) footage. “You understand what they’re trying to accomplish, and that makes their life easier.” Make the most of opportunities for a little media education.When a local TV news affiliate recently requested to do a story at Rockdale County (Ga.) Public Schools on the new Smart Snacks rule that applies to all foods served in school, School Nutrition Director Peggy Lawrence, SNS, replied by asking, “Where are you going with this?” After all, she notes, reporters don’t always know what the story is. Lawrence provided background and suggested, “‘This is how I could see your story being framed. You could show a vending machine being stocked with healthier items or show [one of our] employees making healthy snacks.’ It made him think it was all his idea, and he came [through] with a great story.” Don’t feel compelled to answer a reporter’s question—right away or even at all. “There’s nothing that says you have to answer [a] specific question,” notes Jean Ronnei, SNS, chief operations officer, St. Paul (Minn.) Public Schools and SNA President-elect. “Pause, reframe and give the answer you want to give.” Watch a few candidate debates this fall and take lessons in how expertly a good politician can deflect a tough question and stay on message with her or his own talking point. When a reporter catches you on the fly with a question for which you are unprepared to answer, then “I don’t know” is a perfectly respectable response. Request a little time to gather your thoughts—and the facts. This is a great occasion to access your personalized district toolkit (see “Media Matters,” page 16). Avoid a terse “no comment,” even if the question is inflammatory or confusing. Politely and professionally explain that this is not a good time for you to respond or that you need to check with someone else more knowledgeable about the issue. Request the reporter’s deadline and then seek some help on how best to respond. “Many times something would [break] on the national news and the [local news] would want an immediate response,” recounts recently retired Wake County (N.C.) Public Schools Senior Director, Child Nutrition Services Marilyn Moody, SNS. “I tried to accommodate them when I could, but I also begged forgiveness. I said our business is to serve children, and at this time we’re not able to accommodate your desires. Most of the time [reporters] were very understanding. But I needed to have a good reason for my refusal, so they understood I wasn’t trying to hide anything.” Above all, never lie or stretch the truth. This might seem tempting when you don’t know an answer or aren’t comfortable with the answer that comes immediately to mind. But if a reporter’s research uncovers discrepancies in what you’ve said, you will be discredited and have a very tough climb to earn trust by the reporter—and the audience—ever again. Avoid talking “off the record.” Unless you are exceedingly comfortable with the media and have a particularly longstanding and congenial relationship with a specific reporter, this good-faith approach should be left to the movies and TV. At best, it can be a minefield that might give the journalist incentive to dig deeper—and subsequently go to other, less-reliable sources. At worst, it could be a request that won’t even be honored if you aren’t operating with some type of legal non-disclosure agreement signed by all parties. Final Thoughts Debbi Beauvais, SNS, district supervisor of school nutrition services, Gates-Chili Central School District, Rochester, N.Y., is an official spokesperson for both SNA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Her expertise more than qualifies her to offer a few final words of advice: “The biggest thing to remember is whether the camera is rolling or not, the minute you greet the media team coming to your school is the moment the story begins.” The same is true for print/web stories, as well. “Everything you say or do while they are there is ‘on the record.’ The interview is not over until they are out the door and in the car.” Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition. Managing Editor Kelsey Casselbury also contributed to this article. Photography by Brian Jackson, dundanim, Digital Vision, Mihajlo Maricic, sculder19, aerogondo, George Doyle and Vladimir Kolobov/Jiunlimited.com. SNAPSHOT • Prepare short sound bites in advance and stick to these key messages. • Avoid school nutrition jargon; practice new ways to describe terms that may be common to you but unfamiliar to your audience. • Don’t feel rushed into making a comment if you are not prepared.
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