Information Is Good;Too Much, Bad; Engagement Is Best

Two great weekly resources for those of us who are serious about our field of school communication are Public Agenda Alert and New@PewResearch.org. Both regularly impart  tems of interest to school communicators and make you think about your own practice of school public relations.

This week’s Pew edition carried an article on a study completed in three cities (Macon, Philadelphia, and San Jose) to see how each city’s information systems were performing. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation asked the Monitor Institute to explore key components of local information systems with the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Some of the findings, especially in surveys conducted in the communities, were notable:

  • Those who think local government does well in sharing information are also more likely to be satisfied with other parts of civic life. Those who believe city hall is forthcoming are more likely than others to feel good about: the overall quality of their community, the ability of the entire information environment of their community to give them the information that matters, the overall performance of their local government and the performance of all manner of civic and journalistic institutions. My take on this is that open communication breeds trust. 
  • Broadband users are sometimes less satisfied than others with community life. That raises the possibility that upgrades in a local information system might produce more critical, activist citizens. Or it may lead to even richer information to engage the community in decision-making.
  • Social media like Facebook and Twitter are emerging as key parts of the civic landscape and mobile connectivity is beginning to affect people’s interactions with civic life. Some 32% of the Internet users in the three communities combined get local news from a social networking site — 19% get such news from blogs and 7% get such news from Twitter. And 32% post updates and local news on social networking sites.
  • If citizens feel empowered, communities get benefits in both directions. Those who believe they can impact their community are more likely to be engaged in civic activities and are more likely to be satisfied with their towns.

More Information May Hinder, Not Help

This week’s Public Agenda Alert commented on the study by noting that there’s no question that an open government is crucial to civic engagement – but more information alone won’t do the job.

Their caution, however, is critical to us in school communication. It is important not to fall into one of the most common misconceptions about public opinion – that more information, all by itself, will help the public make better decisions.

Just how much is too much? When you are now explaining the budget shortfalls and what all the numbers mean to parents and community members, when do you say, “It’s all there, just figure it out for yourself?” Or do you make the time to guide interested citizens through the pages of information to help them understand these documents and the impact it will have for the children of your district?

Prepare for a Learning Curve on Issues

The dilemma continues as Public Agenda refers to Dan Yankelovich’s body of knowledge mentioning that the public has a learning curve on complicated problems. He has taught us that a lack of information can derail a policy or a budget. So can lots of other things: a lack of practical choices, mistrust, denial or just lack of urgency about the problem. He claims that all these things can get in the way, even when there is plenty of information on the topic.

Yankelovich notes that our publics need a way to sort out all the information and make sense of it. Public Agenda notes that the “put it out there and let people figure it out” is a good start as the Pew research demonstrates. But it’s only part of what’s really needed for change.

More engagement, dialogue and participation are needed to really solve the fiscal problems our schools are now facing. And that’s why school districts need communication professionals and other leaders to lead the way in developing strategies and tactics to engage more staff, students, parents, citizens, business leaders, and others in solving the fiscal problems we now face.

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director

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