It’s October and we’re truly into the cycle of the new academic year. It’s now a steady march (and occasional frantic period) towards the summer, with lots of events, successes and struggles along the way – and results day waiting at the end.
Colleges did particularly well this summer to focus the TV limelight on themselves as deliverers of successful outcomes, sharply elbowing schools well out of the way.
But we also know that results season often has a negative narrative accompanying it. No, I’m not talking about the well-worn media tropes: “exams are getting easier”, “schools are gaming the system”, “too many kids got top marks” and so on.
Instead, I’m talking about the naysaying from the FE sector itself. The bemoaning that vocational qualifications never get a look in.
But why does the FE sector think it’s appropriate to tell journalists and editors what and who they should be interested in?
I know it can be frustrating when a story of enormous importance and interest to us and our institutions is passed over.
And there’s the rub. We are not in control. We don’t get to choose what makes coverage unless we pay for it.
Play by the media’s rules – after all it is their game
The news media industry is shrinking. For our sector, it means fewer specialist education reporters, fewer outlets and fewer column inches devoted to us. And locally, news outlets are fighting for survival.
The FE sector, like others, has played a small part in this demise. How many millions of pounds does the FE sector hand over to Google and the like every year?
Question: what can FE do to ensure that it gets its share of media coverage?
Answer: play by the media’s rules – after all it is their game.
Here are five top tips.
1. Don’t expect national media coverage about your hyper-local story
The following mightmake your local or regional media but are unlikely to generate national coverage. This includes new appointments (unless very special – e.g. pop singer Dua Lipa is your new performing arts lecturer); opening of new buildings; VIP visits from royalty, MPs, ministers (unless there is a policy announcement, but then the story becomes theirs, not yours); student field trips; students or lecturers raising money for charity (unless it’s eye-watering amounts and there’s a stonking photograph to go with it); awards ceremonies and celebrations of achievement etc; results days (unless you truly have a compelling and remarkable story and it’s packaged properly), and new courses.
2. Don’t expect journalists to understand FE jargon without clear and brief explanation
Acronyms and specialist words such as VTQs, frameworks and so on are a turn-off. If a journalist struggles to understand, you’ve lost.
3. Do offer useful ideas
Think about the kinds of stories that would work for their publication.
4. Do think beyond your organisation
Offering stories about issues that affect lots of learners are more likely to be successful, especially if they’re topical. For example, research says the mental health of young people moving to a post-16 vocational environment improves, compared to students staying on at school post-16. How could you use this information to get national coverage?
Media outlets are keen to get “opinion” and “how to” articles from people in the know (a bit like this one). Clearly, strongly articulated views on government policy of the day are a win, or leaders telling serious stories from the frontline of education. So don’t use over-used phrases like “learning loss” – describe real-life examples, tell stories and anecdotes. Or, helpful tips articles, such as: “How to decide whether to attend school-sixth form or an FE college”, with really insightful, not boring and not obvious, commentary.
Like most games, you need to understand the field and plan your moves. But even then, there are no guarantees. Try to put yourself in an editor’s shoes, who has tens of these pitches come in daily.
If you can manage that, this academic year it could seriously be “game on”.