How to gain positive media coverage for your school’s STEM project

Three happy chickens in their leafy pen.

One school’s chicken coop and another school’s solar-powered recycled plastic benches with inbuilt phone-recharging stations.

Which will see the light of day as a STEM story published on an online news site, specialist education magazine, or newspaper?

It’s all about crafting a story-idea pitch, how, when, and where you send it, and the relationships you build with your target media.

If you’re not having much luck so far or are keen to get more hits with your ‘school STEM news’, check out this article by me, an award-winning Australian education writer — who’s also been a teacher.

Working out which could be the hotter STEM project news angle:

A story about a chicken coop could win if:

  • Had distinctive elements
  • Approval to talk to the media
  • Strong pitch
  • Accessible
  • Great images
  • Didn’t need interviewee approval
  • Relationship building

Meanwhile, a STEM story about a school’s digital twin might not win because:

  • Similar to a recent story
  • Getting blood from a stone
  • Hurdles to sourcing pix
  • School insists on approving story
  • Meddling with the story
  • Not an exclusive story
  • School’s grievances

Mini-lesson 1: Thinking like a journalist

Teachers make more than 1,500 decisions a day, so how do journalists compare?

· Scouting for story ideas

· pitching ideas

· Checking out the competition

· Meeting deadlines

· Securing exclusives

· building trust with sources

· developing contacts

· checking facts

· finding interviewees

· researching

· finding a story hook

· shaping the lead paragraph

· drafting & redrafting

· responding to editors’ feedback updating breaking stories

· pounding out ‘000s of words a week shrinking profession/pay/resources

· handling complaints

· activism & justice

For journalists, it comes down to a onesie: NEWS!

So, what makes a good news story? It must be:

New

  • Unusual
  • Significant
  • About people, and
  • STEM-related (for the purposes of this article).

What else makes a ‘good’ STEM story?

  • School overcame hurdles
  • Results
  • Student outcomes
  • Changes teaching practice
  • School community pride
  • Spinoff benefits, and
  • External recognition.

Bonus tips:

  • Don’t overthink it — accept rejection & move on
  • Where can you get your easy ‘wins’?
  • Think of pitching as a ‘muscle’ you need to exercise
  • Pitching is a great TRANSFERABLE skill
  • Nail a short, sharp bio for your school

Mini-lesson 2: Doing your due diligence

The first rule of being a staff member: never give your boss nasty surprises

The not-so good (what I’ve actually heard as a journalist):

  • Oooh, I’m not sure if I should be talking to journalists
  • Let me just check with my principal if I can talk to you
  • Our school will write the story, so just print it verbatim
  • I was sure all of that was OFF THE RECORD
  • I know that’s what I said, but it’s not what I meant etc
  • This is a REALLY strong story, you should publish it
  • No one at the school is available to be interviewed

This is better!

  • Does my school community read/listen to/watch your media organization?
  • When’s your deadline?
  • Would you send me a list of questions before the interview?
  • Do you need photographs, if so, of what?

So, remember to:

  • Secure permission
  • Keep others at your school in the loop.
  • Best not to work alone

Mini-lesson 3: Crafting your story pitch

A pitch is usually a par or two to convince a journalist/editor to pick up your story idea. A press release is a very long story pitch.

Key points for crafting pitches:

· Be time savvy

· Create shorter pitches (max 3 key messages)

· Have a spokesperson approved and ready to speak to the journalist

· Think about high-resolution images you could send (at least 1 meg)

· Email, don’t phone the journalist

· Include a ‘call to action’ (see below)

· Even better, develop rapport with target journalists, so they know your school’s backstory

…AND ensure your pitch answers:

Who, what, why, where, when and how?

…plus

So, what? (Why is your story so important/distinctive/unusual/gripping?)

Really think, WHAT makes your STEM story interesting:

• You won external funding for it.

• Did the STEM project surprise you? How? Quantify

• Why’s the project a BIG deal for your school?

• Were you expecting something different? What?

• Will it/did it transform your school? How?

• Would other schools be envious? Why?

• What amazing roles did teachers have?

• Students’ roles? Impact on their learning?

Suggested call to actions:

· Could this be a story for you?

· Get in touch for more information

· Please ring to organise an interview

· What else would you like to know about the project

· Let me know if you’d like to chat about it

How to get from pitch to bullseye?

Before you get your pitch out there …

  • What does success look like for you when this news item is published/aired?
  • Who do you want to read/know about your school’s STEM news?
  • Key messages for your audience?
  • What publications/sites/media channels do you value?
  • How many degrees of separation?
  • Is the timing of the publication/airing important for you?

Each media organisation is unique:

• Different political leanings/story genres/geographical area(s) covered

• Levels of resourcing

• Journalists’ level of experience/enthusiasm

• Some may ASK you to advertise first before they cover your story (!)

Who to target?

  • Your local newspaper
  • A metropolitan newspaper
  • A regional newspaper
  • Local radio stations
  • Regional TV station
  • News website
  • National publication
  • Education editor/journalist
  • Freelance education writer
  • State TV station
  • National TV station
  • Current affairs show
  • ABC Radio science show
  • An education ‘influencer’
  • Your state’s education dpt media team
  • Ethnic newspapers/site
  • International website
  • Etc.

Consider:

Should you know which media organisation you’re targeting before you start writing your pitch?

Suggestion: Find your story first, shape it, then consider the ‘best fit’ media organisation.

Otherwise you’re contorting your story to fit the media organisation.

Once you’ve sent your pitch — FOLLOW UP!

If you hear nothing:

  • Re-send the email in 3–5 business days
  • Ring the journalist within a week

Ask them what they need:

  • An interviewee? Who? When?
  • Photographs? Of what? When? Preferred format?
  • When is their deadline?

Your story has been published/aired?

  • Email them to thank them (unless they botched it! Then you’d send a diplomatic complaint letter).
  • Ask how you can work together more smoothly in the future — what would they prefer?

Good luck!

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Margaret Paton, Aussie-based education writer

PhD student at Deakin University, Australia, using netnography to explore out-of-field teaching. GradCert Ed Research MTeach|GradDip Comm Mgmt |BA Journalism.