School report – could do better.

A school friend of mine told me that one reason among many that the university I work for is a serious establishment is that has no truck with media studies. It seems to me that whenever people want to decry an academic discipline it’s always media and communications that they pick on as evidence of trivial worthlessness –second only to Beckham studies. Although I do have a sneaking feeling that there are probably quite a lot of courses that aren’t going to be much help to the students I do defend media and communications studies. And despite a lot of PR and PR speak being extremely annoying it is as well that people recognise it for what it is and are familiar with, and you probably won’t forgive me for this, modes of contemporary discourse.

My old school is in the press this week and for the worst possible reasons. One of its former pupils has been convicted of a motiveless, vicious, homophobic murder on a crowded street in London.

When I was there it was a perfectly serviceable grammar school. I can’t say there was much encouragement to think beyond the usual girls’ options of teaching, secretarial, nursing which was a shame. But that was a reflection of less liberated times for women and the world is a very different place. Now the school reflects current times and it now looks like a place that encourages achievement in arts and sciences and supports initiative.

Many of the headlines are along the lines of “ex-public school girl” and the fees of £12000 per year are widely quoted. Presumably to demonstrate a kind of irony, The Guardian, and possibly other, quotes the school website, “we know our girls and they know us – their school is very proud of them.” I’m guessing that one of the first things the journalists did was turn to the web site and found there, not a thing that recognised that anything relating to the school had happened.

Following the verdict, the head teacher gave a statement. She said : ‘We are a diverse community that promotes tolerance and individuality. We expect the highest standards of behaviour from our girls at all times.’ I expect that’s true but what she didn’t say was ‘we were shocked when we heard of this terrible event. Our thoughts are with the bereaved family and friends’
As the Observer pointed out today, the girl was obviously deeply disturbed and had been expelled for undisclosed offences. The writer, Tim Adams thinks that the emphasis on her private education betrays an obsession with class. I’m not certain I agree and I sympathise with the school finding itself in this situation.

Where I part company with the school’s actions, or inactions, is that given that the verdict was expected they should surely have prepared a response beyond delivering a bland and, in my view, meaningless statement of the worst sort of PR speak. I expect someone had advised the head to keep it simple. Often a story can be dampened in this way but surely when a man has died and the reputation of the institution you head is in serious peril one has to do better. Proper media fire-fighting because I, for one don’t want the people to associate my old school with a murder. I want them to associate it with the physics rap or the drama or music. In fact, I think that actually my old school might find the services of someone who has done a media course useful.

And the irony for my old school chum is that the university that I work for takes media and communications very seriously. The excellent public affairs department pushes out the good news with efficient regularity and just as important, defends its reputation with prompt and appropriate rebuttal and fire-fighting. It might not teach media studies but it knows when to practice the arts.

One Response to “School report – could do better.”

  1. sansun Says:

    As ever Jenny is absolutely right about the need for any public institution – or private company – to react clearly and rapidly to any bad publicity. The Perrier contamination story is an excellent example of good media practice, and the BP Deepwater Horizon story is an equally good example of how not to manage public relations.

    RULE: Take the blame, where blame is to be taken. Say you’re sorry, and keep saying it. Rapidly mobilise a fix to the problem. Fund that solution well. Whatever it costs will be far less than the losses in share value and in litigation.

    In the case of the School, a clear statement of shock and sadness would have helped.
    Maybe a bit of a mission statement too, but don’t overdo it. The school was clearly not responsible for a dreadful crime committed by a sacked ex-pupil. It seems that the school did discharge its duty in the expulsion of the girl, but the details are not public.

    The US Army was not responsible for the multiple murders committed by Major Nidal Malik Hasan, one of its psychiatrists, but it ought to have read the signs.
    Its conduct after the event seems to have been exemplary. Unambiguous contrition, and a public expression of resolve to understand what happened and why.

    I still say that the idea of a “Media Studies” degree is a waste and a soft option.
    Some people used to say the same thing about “Social Science”, and it is true that the word “science” is utterly wrong in this context. But students of society – by which I mean students of that complex interplay of economics, politics, and psychology – are much more focussed to their academic discipline than students who think that being able to quote from Jacques Derrida qualifies them to understand TV, radio, the print press and the internet.

    If I see “media studies” on a CV it goes straight into the bin.

    But if I see evidence of practical experience in the media on a CV it goes to the top of the pile.

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