“Fake news” used to be somewhat fun and usually harmless. It even gave me plenty teachable moments throughout my extensive communication career.
Here are two examples of what I mean:
- Long before social media arrived, I tried to show how to shoot down the damaging effects of spreading school district rumors with various clerical support staff. In one workshop of 20 administrative assistants, I split the group into two sets of 10 and then read separately to the first staffer in each group a “juicy” rumor about the district or superintendent. Then confidentially, each person would whisper the rumor to the next person until the 10th recipient announced what she heard. Both groups finished with surprisingly different messages and more important, they both were so far from the “truth” of the original message. I would then read the original script, folks would laugh, and I would try to seize the moment to teach about veracity in rumors and what staff members should do when they heard rumors in their system. The exercise made a stinging point about how spreading fake news messages distorts the truth.
- Another “Fake news” approach was to create fake headlines or postings to prevent leadership from making decisions that would not “play well” for staff relations or in the court of public opinion. I once counseled a superintendent to talk frankly and compassionately within legal bounds about an alleged rape at a high school. He refused to do so. I quickly mocked up a few fake headlines to drive home my point:
Superintendent Smith Denies Alleged Rape at High School, But Police Confirm It
High School Staff and Students Report Sexual Misconduct Incident; Superintendent Unaware
In this particular case, the fake news headlines did not work the way I planned. This superintendent ran away from transparency and didn’t take my advice — and then he was forced to run away from the district about 10 months after this incident.
So I used to use “Fake news” as a tool to “slap some practical reality and consequences” into the thinking of school leaders.
This Anecdotal Research and Insight May Help Superintendents
With the recent presidential campaign, I’ve learned from editorials, opinion pieces, and professional journalists’ analyses that dispense advice about the “war of information” and how to make sure people accept and understand your brand of truth.
Our quick research on the topic found an array of articles that were much too long for this piece. But seeing just a few excerpts from our findings may help us set the stage for lessons about what superintendents can do now:
“The press takes him (Trump) literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” — Salina Zito in The Atlantic
RB: So we cannot report or act on what he actually says — not sure this is a good lesson for local, highly accountable superintendents.
RB: To get my point this next segment, substitute education leaders when the author mentions journalists:
Journalists (education leaders) need to think politically about journalism (education leadership) itself, which does not mean to politicize it. Like it or not, the press (public education) is a public actor, currently in the fight of its life against forces that want to bring it down. This is a political situation par excellence, but nothing in their training or temperament prepares journalists (education leaders) to fight the kind of battle they’re in. They think they would rather chase stories, publish what they find, and let the politics take care of itself. But that won’t cut it anymore.
What I mean by “think politically” involves basic questions:
What do we stand for that others also believe in? Who is aligned against us? Where are we most vulnerable? What are our opponents’ strengths? How can we broaden our base? Who are our natural allies? What can we unite around, despite our internal differences? What are the overlapping interests that might permit us to make common cause with people who are not journalists (education leaders )? — Jay Rosen, PRESSTHINK, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University
The distinction between “troubles” and “issues” was struck by sociologist C. Wright Mills in the 1950s. He said troubles were the problems that concern people in their immediate experience. “An issue is a public matter: some value cherished by publics is felt to be threatened.”
When the issues that get attention fail to connect to people’s troubles, or when common troubles don’t get surfaced and formulated as public issues… that is where journalism-as-listener can intervene, and earn back trust. Whenever troubles don’t match up with issues, there is trust to be won for journalists able to listen better than systems that are failing people. The author used the movie, Spotlight, as an example of turning individual troubles into public issues. — Jay Rosen, PRESSTHINK, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University.
RB: We all have to do a better job of listening to all people, not just to our usual suspects. In helping us chart the path for better performance and support for public education, authentic engagement strategies must come into play.
David Ignatius, of The Washington Post, wrote a piece after the election entitled, The Truth Is Losing. In an interview with the State Department’s Richard Stengel, Ignatius offered observations and comments. A few are:
- Stengle noted: “We like to think that truth has to battle itself out in the market place of ideas. Well, it may be losing in that marketplace today. Simply having fact-based messaging is not sufficient to win the information war.”
- The article points out that going “tit for tat” in arguing with extremists through social media was not that fruitful. Stengel noted that by empowering others to be the messenger — as they could make the case more emphatically. “The central insight was that we’re not the best messenger for our messages because in the post-truth world, the people we are trying to reach automatically question anything from the U.S. government.
RB: In some of our larger school communities, this may be tactic to consider as we move forward.
Strategies and Tactics to Help Superintendents Deal with Fake News
I offer these ideas as trial balloons for you and your team to consider in the year ahead. From my standpoint, the more global advice may work best as you consider what may work well for your community.
One thing is certain: The playing field has changed, and we need to be prepared for all forms of pushback. Increasing numbers of our residents feel more empowered than ever to chime in with their messages about our public schools.
We need to listen more in multiple ways
No matter the size of your school community, you can bet that pockets of parents, staff, community leaders, residents, and students feel disenfranchised as a result of decisions that have affected them. The recent election demonstrated resoundingly, I think, that we do not regularly connect with these groups. We need to genuinely understand their “troubles” before those troubles become major issues. Or even as I mentioned above, although people’s troubles may not be strictly district issues, they need to know that we are concerned about helping to solve them. We must demonstrate through communication and action that we are responsive to their concerns.
You should consider using a full arsenal of engagement and listening strategies ¾ from very simple feedback devices to more elaborate communicate responses to very focused engagement and collaboration strategies. You must bring community members together to work on problems or issues to validate your authentic concern that all people will be heard. By working together, you’ll build a better understanding in the community and that will begin to chip away at the notion that “our schools don’t listen to me.” Closing the communication loop is key.
Begin or revitalize a true Key Communicator Program
This trust-building tactic is critical in today’s instant communication world. You truly need a Key Communicator Program to inspire confidence in what you say and do.
Unfortunately over recent years, we’ve seen an increase of watered-down Key Communicator Programs that have turned into little more than a list-serv in certain communities. If you’re tapping the old and new power structures in your community, regularly meeting with small segments of your key communicators, and communicating with them electronically, you’ll be on your way to building a base of well-respected spokespeople for your schools.
Remember, many parents and others may prefer to hear their school messages from respected leaders and neighbors rather than from a school official. If run appropriately, this Key Communicator process can help you develop credibility in this era of anything-goes social media. If your system is very large, you and your area superintendents should consider implementing multiple programs that cover all of the clusters in your system.
One last note on Key Communicators for now: People need to get to know you face to face. Only then can you can begin using your earned credibility through videos, Twitter, email, Facebook, etc. But first you need to start with in-person meetings — otherwise people may just see you as another empty pitchman or woman for your schools — sort of like the ones you see on late-night insurance commercials.
May the truth be known: Setting-the-record-straight feature on websites and social media
We’ve seen districts dedicate a section on their websites or Facebook accounts to set the record straight. Even though research may show that fake news may still overcome this attempt, it’s often refreshing for school employees to know that someone is defending “the truth” about their schools.
My favorite story involves a budget task force that offered its community a survey on making budget cuts. The survey had a number of the usual items but also asked open-ended questions about possible cuts. Previously, a rumor in the community had sparked a controversy about the superintendent’s so-called $900 car allowance. That car allowance was the Number One response for what people wanted to cut from the budget — for a whopping savings of $10,800 from the $85 million budget. Truth is, it turned out that the superintendent did not even have a car allowance in that system.
Fake news strikes again.
Be prepared. Set up a process for staff to report fake news items to you so that your leadership is aware of what’s out there. Once you know, you can decide what to do or not to do but, some staff member who has good judgment should be responsible to monitor the fake new front on a daily basis.
Teach, preach, and model analysis tactics about fake news
In our schools, we teach students how to become analytical readers because we know that’s a critical skill in becoming more successful in life. We need to remind our staff, parent groups, and others to practice those analytical skills as well.
We need to ask: What is the source of the information? Who funded the study or report? What other items have been produced by the author or publisher in the past? How wide or small was the research? What can be done to verify this information? Where else can we find similar information?
You know the drill; we just have to remind our colleagues to practice it — often and diligently.
Think politically to move your agenda forward
All those questions we noted in our research really do fit for education leaders — especially in the area of vulnerabilities. Our critics or the budget advocates for vouchers and other devices certainly attack public education on performance, but recent studies show that many public schools actually perform equal to or better than some private institutions.
It’s time to assess all those questions mentioned earlier so that in the coming days you do not feel blind-sided by attacks from voucher advocates and others.
And, remember, it’s all about the kids
Most of us remember the line about keeping focused that staff used during the Bill Clinton presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, Stupid!” Well, for us, it’s really all about the kids.
Distraction through social media is what drives a fake-news approach to campaigns. We urge you not to fall for those traps. Stay focused on why we all entered the education profession.
It’s all about the kids and what we can do for them within the financial means and talent we can offer.
Keep asking how any of the changes proposed will make a difference for the students in your schools. What can they do to make your children better? What can they do to make the vitality of your community stronger?
Stay focused on the kids and proceed accordingly.
Rich Bagin, APR