Two Trends — One Positive, the Other, Not So Much

Two trends in our profession demonstrate the increasing need for a solid communication professional on staff.

Trend 1

More districts are finally recognizing and began funding communication as a management function in their systems. So as friend and PR guru Steve Knagg often says, “Amen, brother!”

Districts are finally recognizing that in today’s climate, where anyone can become an instant publishing source about your schools, they need a go-to pro to engage their communities and serve as a credible source and force for transparent communication.

They also are beginning to understand that it is not simply telling the good news but also engaging the community to tackle issues that may be preventing the system from getting better. And that means that they need a real pro – someone steeped in internal and community engagement experiences who has the over-arching skills needed to lead a comprehensive strategic communication program for their districts. Publicity and social media specialists can play a part in that effort but today’s challenges demand a cabinet-level communication position.

Trend 2

It is hard as hell to be a school communicator in today’s world.

And that’s probably why Trend 1 is brewing. More districts are realizing that they will be way over their heads if they don’t have a professional communicator on staff. Most districts without professional communicators rarely make the time to deal effectively with proactive, let alone reactive, communication. And that is why they often find themselves taking a public opinion beating.

But the second trend goes much deeper than that.

We received a call from a member who told us a story that points to what people in today’s school district jobs frequently face.

Here is the modified version of what we heard to set the stage on how our jobs are changing:

An elementary student fell from the top of a slide during school hours. Four adults were in the area supervising. The student had facial bruises and other damages. The student was treated at the emergency ward of a local medical facility and the district noted that it would pay for medical costs related to this incident.

The mother of the student later said that the student was in a fight and that the fight caused the damages.

She went to the local newspaper, contacted a lawyer, and the story has gone viral on social media. A fund was established to help the parent fight this battle and national media also descended on this district to tell the mother’s story.

Social media is fanning the flames of this situation and folks from across the U.S. are commenting about the situation as they understand it. This type of situation could quickly overwhelm the operations and reputation of any school district.

District legal counsel was naturally involved and the now “public court” versus “public opinion” negotiation is going on as the school district needs to tell its side of the story based on adult witnesses at the time of the incident. A major credibility gap exists until the “truth” is revealed as many residents no longer give school officials the “benefit of the doubt” in these situations.

Pat Jackson, APR, the late PR guru and friend of NSPRA, used to call these situations based on instant polls during his day as “old-time lynch mobs.” I have said many times that when emotions and facts collide, emotions win just about every time.

And that’s why it is important to get out front early with what you know.

Keep repeating the key facts of the situation. You must demonstrate empathy in these cases and do all you can to help the child through the situation.

Bruce Blythe, the author of a new crisis leadership book, Blind Sided, compares crisis incidents to someone having a heart attack: The faster you deal with it, the better success for survival. He also asks professionals to take the “reasonable person test.” How will reasonable people in your community react to your action steps and messaging?

Times are different for today’s school communication pros. The pros know better than many of their colleagues what it takes to lead a system through a crisis. Hopefully they can convince their legal counsel, board, and top administrators to take action instead of remaining silent while their entire community is abuzz with misinformation that is damaging the reputation of their schools and possibly their staff.

Top pros already have their infrastructure set up to quickly deliver appropriate messages to staff, media, parents, and key opinion leaders in their community.

The good news remains that more school districts are realizing they need more communication leadership and they have begun filling the current enormous void with top-flight communication NSPRA professionals.

Rich Bagin APR
NSPRA Executive Director

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