Cheryl A. Schmidt, Howard-Suamico School District
In the era of email, voicemail, iPods, text messaging etc. it is no wonder that we have take the time needed to talk face to face. (I am not including the webcam ability to talk to a distorted face on your monitor.) The technology of today is fast and wonderful and it has its place. However, very few of us are adept at communicating well through email and etc. Much of what we try to is prone to be misunderstood because it is one-way.
That is why a good public relations plan will include opportunities for people to people contact. It is more than an open-door policy. Instead, walk into the worlds of others. Join community service groups, attend local sporting events, and support student performances. Leaders who are visible open themselves up for opportunities to have people to people conversations and unleash the potential of hearing many perspectives.
Another, more formal strategy is to host formal person-to-person events. Superintendent chats, gabs, or town hall meetings provide the opportunity for people to listen, learn, and ask questions, one on one. A key communicator network is also important. Identify the people in your school districts that other people trust and who are viewed as credible. Invite them to quarterly meetings and share the needs, successes and challenges of your schools. Soon, others in your community will be able to tell your school district story with some accuracy. When people know the person behind the title, it is more likely that the leader will be believable when times are tough.
We have also become a society of “You are guilty before proven innocent.” We listen to the first sensational information we hear from media and do not always allow the person to share the facts. Was Ryan O’Neal or Griffin O’Neal the victim? Thanks to shows like ET, Inside Addition, E News and local news reporting, we can get the news “As It Happens.” Media is often reporting and rumors are spreading before all the facts have been collected.
Instant news in many forms has increased the challenge to communicate the facts effectively. In the case of horrific events such as school shootings or misdeeds of employees there is probably no perfect public relations formula. But one thing remains clear: when trouble arrives we are, in the end, human beings. If school leaders have made themselves available and approachable before a crisis, it is more likely they will be believed during a crisis. If the media is asked to wait until all the facts are known, this courtesy is more likely to be extended if the leader has been forthcoming in the past. Sometimes, the best we can hope for at a time of crisis is that our media, the community and school district family will consider all the information, as it is available. We want our comments, too, to reflect consideration for the person, their families, students, and other school administration affected by the crisis before opening the situation up for dialogue. It is a delicate line, communicating during crisis, and to have the benefit of a prior relationship is a valuable resource during crisis.
Face-to-face and person-to-person is still the most reliable and fair opportunity to communicate. It not only alleviates the impersonality of technology, but it puts the people back in PR.