How the line on the CBC became “Home and School Federation also says it’s time to look at adding more instructional time for students”

Here’s an interesting and somewhat cautionary tale of how things become “news” in Prince Edward Island.

On Tuesday I attended the launch of Prince Edward Island’s updated school calendar at Spring Park School on behalf of the PEI Home and School Federation. Along with Federation president Pam Montgomery, I represent English parents on the School Calendar Committee, and was invited in that capacity.

After the launch, which was well conducted and communicated the school calendar and the rationale behind it effectively, there was an opportunity for the media to ask questions and interview those present. Pam and I were interviewed by Ryan Ross from The Guardian, and that interview supported the story he published later, where Pam was quoted like this:

For Pam Montgomery, the P.E.I. Home and School Federation’s president, she said her organization had a lot of input in the calendar and expressing parents’ input on maintaining the amount of instructional time.

I think we’ve been very successful in doing that,” she said.

A large part of our interview with Ryan focused on the need to communicate to parents about professional development, about how every home and school meeting should include a discussion of what’s been happening on professional development days, and how it’s important that if we’re going to invest the sacrifice of instructional time in professional development it needs to be high quality and relevant. We obviously didn’t express that forcefully or creatively enough, as it didn’t make it into print.

Later that afternoon, after I’d returned to the office, I got a call from Sara Fraser at CBC. She was having difficulty connecting with Pam to do an on-camera interview and wondered whether I could pinch-hit for her. I agreed, and 30 minutes later Sara was in the basement of my office with a camera operator to do an interview. She cautioned me up front that they were only looking for a short clip, and that I should keep that in mind.

In my interview with Sara I talked, again, about the importance of communicating about professional development to parents, and about some of the challenges that the school calendar committee faced in its deliberations. One of those challenges, I mentioned, was that the structure of the school calendar is limited by two currently-immovable walls: September 1 and June 30, which are the negotiated start and end of the school year for teachers. I suggested that if we really want to get serious about adding instructional time and professional development time to the calendar, we were going to have to address that issue. And that’s the clip that made it to air:

Sara: PEI’s Home and School Federation would like the school year even longer.

Peter: …to really take professional learning and the school calendar out for a ride and get more instructional days and more professional learning days, we’ve got to address that issue and that’s sort of the next hill to climb.

Unfortunately what was missing from the clip was the sentence before in which I explained what “that issue” – the immovable start and end of the school year – was. Without that sentence for context, it seemed like our “message” was dissatisfaction with the school calendar modifications because the school year wasn’t lengthened.

Now, fortunately, the notion that the school year should be longer reflects almost all of the feedback we’ve had from local home and schools on this issue: parents, in general, want their children to be spending more time in the classroom, not less.  So it’s not like I was quoted as saying something untrue or not reflective of parents’ collective feelings.

What has happened next, however is that that comment that went to air has been quoted in another CBC story, held up beside an opposition call for more instructional time that you probably heard on the local news this morning:

The Home and School Federation also says it’s time to look at adding more instructional time for students.

Well, yes, that’s, in essence, what I said. But is it what I meant?

Is it an effective distillation, in a single sentence, of what “parents of PEI feel about the school calendar”?


Presumably this is why people who speak in public take “media training”: to understand that it’s about what you say and don’t say and how you say it that will determine what appears on TV and what the public hears. If I hadn’t made an honest but, in the grander scheme of things, “off message” comment about why making a school calendar is hard, then the CBC headline might have been “Parents say communication is key to implementing school calendar changes.”

Lesson learned.

Oh, and I need a hair cut.


dave cormier's picture
dave cormier on March 8, 2014 - 05:00

Well said Peter. I’ve sent your post off to a colleague who had a similar experience. He thought it was his fault…

David's picture
David on March 8, 2014 - 15:29

This is something you only learn with experience, unfortunately — particularly bad interviews. Media training taught me:

1) The media even if they’re your friends are not your friends during the interview;
2) Broadening the discussion (and the context) is almost always where people get in trouble;
3) Never assume anything outside of the words you just said is understated, understood or will be communicated.

Most spokespeople are human (some more than others), but those robotic speaking notes are a product of the 10-second soundbite environment. The only way to ensure your core message gets embedded is for you to pivot to it over, and over, and over again.

Lori's picture
Lori on March 10, 2014 - 00:33

Having been negatively affected by a twisted media story, I feel your pain.
I do appreciate the explanation. I did wonder what was going on, but my youngest daughter is in grade twelve and I really didn’t know if—at this point in time-it’s my place to question the direction the PEIHS is taking.

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