Media scrutiny can be a positive experience

Steve Hirano, Executive Editor
Posted on March 1, 1998

You are not Bill Clinton; neither am I. This is not a harsh reality, but rather a pleasant circumstance, all things considered. But, like the President, we face the possibility of an "unfortunate incident" that can gather and surge and ride us into the vast blackness that is commonly referred to as "intense media scrutiny." How we deal with this scrutiny affects our credibility and reputation, both vital requisites for any school bus operation. Certainly, any major accident involving a school bus, especially if students are seriously injured or killed, will spur phone calls from newspaper reporters and broadcast journalists. You might even receive a call from editors at this magazine. These are the sometimes unavoidable situations that come with the territory of pupil transportation. They often occur without explanation or blame. But how you handle these calls will affect the public's perception of your school district, especially the transportation department. So it's important that you understand the needs of journalists who are trying to gather information and file a story. The stonewall effect
Your school district may have a standard policy that you refer all calls to the superintendent's office. That's fine. There's not much you can do about that. But I don't think it's the best way of handling these situations. Nothing makes a journalist more suspicious than to be stonewalled. That's invariably what happens when they're shunted to the administration offices. I fully understand the theory behind damage control, but I appreciate it when someone, anyone, will provide me with the basic facts of the incident. What happened? Did a pickup truck and bus collide in the middle of a major intersection? When did it happen? How many people were injured? What was the driver's name? Well, you know the drill. These are basic facts. Often they can be obtained from the police report. But it's nice to have the transportation department provide that information and any other relevant details. Being a credible resource is one way of achieving a positive relationship with the media. And that should be your objective from a public relations standpoint. After all, journalists are people, too. They want to establish a good working relationship with their sources. Even when they're reporting a story that seems to reflect negatively on a school district or school bus operation, they're simply doing their job. One way to ensure that you are treated fairly by the media is to establish a relationship based on mutual respect. Answer questions honestly and sincerely. Don't duck controversial issues. Show that your concern is genuine and that accuracy is your chief goal in providing information. Put your best foot forward
Once you've earned the respect of local journalists, you might want to suggest some ideas for feature stories that highlight the positive aspects of your operation. For example, an innovative program that teaches drivers how to manage the behavior of rowdy students might appeal to a newspaper editor looking for a story about child passenger safety. This material might not seem like the makings of a headline grabber, but you would be surprised what a good reporter and photographer can do with a feature story like this. In addition, keep the media alerted to upcoming school bus events, such as an Operation Safe Stop program, and also to changes in laws affecting pupil transportation. Informing the general public about safety issues involving school buses is your responsibility as well as the media's. Of course, any time one of your drivers rescues a child from a burning bus, you should be on the phone to the local media immediately. But I didn't have to tell you that, did I?

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