By Nora Carr | from the July issue of American School Board Journal | http://bit.ly/mRxlYI
Few took the fledgling Tea Party movement seriously in 2009. Then, in 2010, Tea Party candidates began toppling political icons nationwide.
Now Tea Partiers have set their sights on public schools, calling for massive funding cuts. Using the recession and state budget woes as political cover, many Tea Party zealots seek to dismantle or starve the traditional public school infrastructure.
Not surprisingly, most websites and candidates associated with the movement also call for the rapid expansion of charter schools, vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other parent choice mechanisms.
Ironically, given the apparently widespread belief among many Tea Party advocates that the nation’s public schools are irretrievably broken, the movement has begun encouraging candidates to run in local school board elections.
Voters, it seems, are getting angrier and staying mad longer. Misinformation abounds, spread worldwide 24/7 by bloggers and social media savants.
Traditional political wisdom counsels school officials to reinforce their supporters, engage those in the middle, and ignore the negative 2 percent to 10 percent whose opinions will never change.
Unfortunately, with more than 70 percent of U.S. voters no longer directly connected to their public schools through their children, ignoring media-savvy activist groups is likely to backfire.
“With most activist groups there are legitimate concerns, and those concerns are worthy of examination,” says Alan Freitag, a retired lieutenant colonel and public affairs officer in the U.S. Air Force who is now a public relations professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Assess before acting
As rhetoric heats up, parsing legitimate concerns from intractable political or philosophical positions is getting more challenging.
Before school officials spend limited time and political capital, Freitag recommends assessing the actual and potential benefit or harm a group can do to the organization’s mission, reputation, and support.
As a first step, Freitag recommends monitoring blogs, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and hostile websites to get a sense of what issues are being discussed and what is likely to happen with the group moving forward.
“Activist groups seek and create opportunities to be heard,” says Freitag. “They need to communicate in order to do that. By monitoring the conversation, you can get a sense if there’s a real issue or a real concern that they’re expressing that needs to be dealt with.”
Mainstream media outlets typically trail Internet and social media traffic. By identifying issues early, before groups reach critical mass or problems erupt into full-blown crises, leaders can be more proactive and strategic in how they engage and collaborate with activist groups.
Monitoring Internet and social media sources also helps school leaders identify whether activist groups have just a few members or hundreds of followers.
“All activist groups are not the same,” says Freitag. “If you assess the situation and classify the organization as just being out to do damage, then engaging them in any significant way beyond a very limited response is probably not going to be warranted.”
Freitag cautions that such situations typically are quite rare. Most activist groups want and deserve a response, and most will join with organizations in solving common problems and concerns.
“You don’t need to reach 51 percent of the public. You need to reach 51 percent of those who matter,” says James Lukazsewski, a crisis communications consultant. “From a strategy point of view, folks who really care will support you or protect you if they have a relationship with you.”
Being responsive to inquiries is one of the best ways to disarm critics and win new converts to any cause, experts say.
“Everyone with a question is entitled to an answer, including those who are angry,” says Lukazsewski. “Too often educated people judge the questioner rather than the question. When we stop judging who is worthy of a response and start responding, we will settle people down.”
Unfortunately, school districts and other government agencies are notorious for providing poor customer service.
Districts that have engaged parents or trained consultants to contact schools and departments and record the responses they receive are often shocked to discover the high percentage of phone calls, e-mails, letters, and faxes that go unanswered.
The lack of response only fuels distrust among parents and the public. “For every question the school board answers, six people quit worrying,” says Lukazsewski. “If you want to have problems, pick and choose the questions you answer. When you do answer, answer like an attorney.”
That’s why Lukazsewski and other crisis management consultants advise increasing -- not decreasing -- communication efforts when organizations are under attack.
“School boards and district administrators need to have more aggressive communication efforts so they’re leading the discussion and not reacting to it,” says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management.
Rather than simply disseminate information, school officials need to engage and involve activist groups and other constituents in district planning and decision-making processes. From listening and learning sessions to Rotary Club presentations, school officials need to get more engaged in community outreach and in telling public education’s story.
“Leaders need to be face to face with just about everybody all the time,” says Lukazsewski. “Why wait for a school board meeting, where we have these big dramas? You need to get out there and meet with members of the public who like you so you can motivate them, and you need to meet with people who are angry, because that is how you build integrity and trust.”
It’s easy to criticize people with whom you don’t have a relationship, says Smith. “It’s hard to criticize someone you know, and most communities don’t know who their school board members or administrators are at their local districts.”
Since activist groups tend to thrive on emotion and passion, Freitag recommends responding to accusations calmly and succinctly, focusing on facts and the organization’s point of view.
“Fighting is not leading,” says Lukazsewski. “How you behave as a leader is what moves organizations forward.”
Nora Carr (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools and a contributing editor to ASBJ.