Archive for the ‘school media relations’ category

Fake News and What Superintendents Can Do About it in Our Schools and Communities


news11“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

Executive Director


Moses and Aaron, His PR Staffer, Would Have Trouble Today


Dr. Don Bagin, my late brother and a pioneer in our communication field, used to tell an old joke that went something like this:

Return with me to the days of Moses leading the Israelites fleeing from the Pharaoh’s army that was gaining ground on them. The Israelites were leaving their homes with their families and their possessions.

When Moses approached the Red Sea, he realized that he and his people were in immediate trouble unless something dramatic happened.

While pondering his next step, Aaron, Moses’ confidant and PR person, suggested that Moses stand on the large rock on the bank of the Red Sea, spread his arms while holding his staff (for a better dramatic visual, I assume), and seek God’s assistance to part the waters of the sea.

After the Israelites had crossed safely, Aaron again counseled Moses to wait for the Pharaoh’s army to enter the dry path created and then close his arms again with the staff (again, for a better visual) and the sea wall will close and cut off the army’s access to Moses and his beloved followers.

Moses seemed a bit skeptical of Aaron’s advice and asked, “Will this really work?”

Aaron responded, “I’m not sure, but if it does, I can guarantee you two pages in the Bible.”

Rim shot, please! Blame my brother.

The Silly Joke Has Teaching Value for Our Profession

Guaranteeing that you’ll get any media coverage for a story has never been possible unless you are totally in charge of the outlet. That’s why we often smirk a bit when we hear statements from superintendents and board members who proudly hail their accomplishment of hiring a former reporter from a menacing paper or TV news station because it will guarantee that they’ll get great coverage of their schools.

The truth is that while these reporters do know the inner workings of their outlets, they also know that posting continuous good news stories will not fly by their previous bosses, editors, and assignment gatekeepers. Former reporters can bring a positive edge for this one function of a PR professional, but they, too, cannot guarantee anything. And their previous bosses may not be so happy about their leaving, and consequently may not be eager doing them any favors.

Today’s Technology Disrupts Sure-Thing Placements

If social media and today’s technology were alive back in the Moses era, other scenarios would have played out like:

  • Just about any Israelite with a smart phone could guarantee coverage of their own story by posting it through social media tools like Facebook and Twitter. Only thing, it is not the type of story you would like to see.
  • Using today’s tech tools in Moses’ time could have led to one of the Israelites texting his brother-in-law back in the Pharaoh’s army and spilling the beans about Moses’ plan. Had that happened, the results would have been very different. They could have used Instagram, Twitter, email, and periscope and even drones — all leading to a very different outcome.

Today’s PR Professionals Need a Diversified Portfolio of Tools and the Skills to Go with Them

The point is that top PR pros realize the importance of having good professional relationships with the media and they know how to effectively work with the media to get desired results. They also know that having healthy media relations is just one tactic needed to be to produce positive results for their schools.

Top pros understand the critical importance of having a strategy linked to district goals and using numerous tech tools, engagement programs, internal communication efforts, and marketing approaches to build an effective program.

Believing that media relations alone will carry your communication effort is a mistake.

And, yes, I guarantee it!

Rich Signature-bold cropped

Rich Bagin, APR

NSPRA Executive Director Communication E-Kit for Superintendents---3--06262013_Page_01


NSPRA has a practical free tool that provides insight on what is needed to start a professional communication program for your school district. It even offers advice on hiring the right person.

You can get your own free copy by going to


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 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