School Crisis Management: What to Say When the Media Shows Up

Published December 1, 2004

“What do you do when someone like me [the media] shows up at your door?” asked Chicago’s NBC-5 News co-anchor Anna Davlantes at a recent sports education symposium in Chicago designed for school administrators and athletic directors. Her recommendation: Put one person in charge of talking with the media, make that person available to the media, and provide a straightforward message for the media to report.

Davlantes broke the story of the Glenbrook North High School hazing incident almost three years ago, “an incident that cast a dark shadow over a very good school in our community,” she said. Until then, people didn’t know hazing was occurring, that girls were doing it, or that so many students would simply stand by and watch it happen. Now, she said, the incident is a case study of how a large high school dealt with a serious crisis that occurred off-campus, over a weekend.

“There needs to be just one person in charge of dealing with the media,” she advised. “Often the message gets muddled when everybody tries to step in and talk.” On the other hand, saying “Oh, we can’t talk to you” means the crisis story will be reported without being balanced by the school’s point of view.

Saying nothing may be good legal advice but it sometimes conveys a damaging message, noted Eldon Ham, symposium co-host and professor of sports law at Chicago-Kent School of Law. Even if the facts are unknown, he suggested some comments could send an effective message, such as: “This allegation is disturbing, and we’re very concerned about it. We’re not sure if it’s true, and so we are investigating further.”

Ham’s advice for school administrators was the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared, because a crisis can occur anywhere–on the field or off the field, on-campus or off-campus, with players or with spectators. And when video footage is available–as it was in the Glenbrook North incident–that gives the story “legs.”

“If a picture is worth a thousand words, a moving picture or videotape is probably worth a million words or more,” said Ham.

Responding to a question about quotes being taken out of context, Davlantes pointed out the typical TV sound bite is less than 10 seconds, so if a person’s message takes 20 seconds or more to say, it’s unlikely to be seen in full on the air. People have to ask themselves, “How can I say this clearly within 10 seconds of time?”

“One of the ways you can [make sure you get your message out] is by making your message as clear as possible and by repeating your points to journalists during the course of your news conference.” she said. “Say it again and again. If you don’t like the way you said it the first time, don’t be afraid to repeat your main point over and over again as part of your answers to other questions.”

The October 18, 2004 “Sports Is Education, Too” symposium was sponsored by the Sports Is Education Foundation, an Illinois not-for-profit organization.