Why doesn’t mainstream media pay FE more attention? And other fruitless disconsolations

“Why doesn’t the mainstream media pay us more attention?”  A common cry in further education. Notwithstanding the popularity of apprenticeships as a news topic, primariy driven by the fact that they represent a flagship Government policy, these lamentations have some foundation.

Journalists’ opinions on this one differ. The late Mike Baker thought that colleges needed a cadre of controversial Principals in order to attract more attention from news desks. He definitely had a point in terms of how unattractive journalists find FE jargon and tendencies towards the platitudinous or bromidic.

But attempting to out-maverick the crack corps of (certain) head teachers and vice chancellors who comment on the opening of an envelope is a risky strategy. Particularly if what you are saying is, in order to attract attention and in the long view, daft.

Alison Kershaw, Press Association education correspondent, told an audience of education PR practitioners that the cause was more prosaic – too many of the press releases received from colleges were poorly written or presented and she never made it past the subject line. I received some of the the same releases for ten years; she had a point. Now the pool of eloquent, professional PROs in colleges appears to be deepening.

A news editor friend of mine (who wants to remain nameless for fear of reprisals) thinks it reflects the lack of familiarity among his peers with the state school system. ‘We hacks send our kids to the alma mater’, he admits.

In truth, it’s an exasperating question, and not just because of its ubiquity, being often (but not always) borne out of four mistaken assumptions, namely that:

1.    media prioritise topics and stories according to an empirical (but faulty) system of ‘merit’.

In the real world, they’re caught in a circle of responding to what readers and listeners find most interesting, which in turn is affected by complex and inconsistently-applied editorial judgements based on factors as diverse as the political affiliation of a newspaper or TV station, a breakfast conversation between the news editor and her partner and whether the sun is shining today.

2.    FE’s obscurity is somehow intrinsic to colleges.

When the causes are primarily environmental. Thanks to the Blair Government’s specialist school scheme (in the application for which hundreds of schools renamed themselves ‘college’) there are far more schools bearing the name ‘college’ than FE, specialist or sixth form colleges. A college can also be an American university, an independent school or an Oxbridge sub-set. The funding system imposed on incorporated colleges is spectacularly labrynthian, baffling for specialist education correspondents, never mind unfamiliar general reporters. Vocational qualifications, in which many incorporated colleges specialise, come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes, compared to the uniform GCSE, A-level and degree. School is a universal rite of passage, university one of (sadly) relative privilege, both common experiences for the night editor of the Daily Telegraph or a Guardian sub (hello there), whereas college may not be. It’s no wonder journalists might pass over an FE story in favour of one they find easier to understand and so explain to the reader, listener or viewer.

3.    appearing in national newspapers or on television/radio is necessarily a good thing.

Often, it isn’t. As Alistair Campbell told an audience of college leaders back in 2005, if the ratio of positive to negative stories in a newspaper is 1:20 then putting effort into appearing in that paper might not be such a great idea. There are people who make a lot of money dedicating their lives to keeping organisations out of the media.

This isn’t to say media relations on behalf of further education is not worthwhile or, often successful. College students and staff, alongside expert commentators from organisations such as the Association of Colleges* appear in national newspapers, on radio and television stations every week.

*shameless but factually correct former-employer plug.

4.    it has to matter.

It doesn’t. In the splintering of our media and the promiscuity of our consumption, focusing on print, cathode rays or radio wave belies a certain level of unfamiliarity about the opportunities for communicating what colleges do and their rather extraordinary contribution to society**. Yes, talking about an issue on the Today programme often means it will reverberate across traditional and social media for the rest of the day, but there is now a luxuriance of channels we can effectively use to raise awareness, change attitudes or affect behaviour. On holiday in Greece this summer I couldn’t move for a cosmopolis of kids singing the chorus of ‘Dumb ways to die’, thanks to an Australian Metro public service announcement video uploaded to Youtube in November last year. I’m not saying that the campaign has stopped Australians from driving around level crossings (although the agency says early results are showing a 20% reduction in accidents and near-misses on the Melbourne Metro) but you get my drift.

**shameless but factually correct former-sector plug

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