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Meet the Press

The scenes play out in every administrator’s nightmare: Maybe it’s a phone call in the middle of the night. Or how about a bunch of news vans parked in front of the high school? For the districts on the next few pages, those nightmares became reality. When people want answers, fall back on the Boy Scout motto: Be prepared.

By Marty Weil | September 2006
Meet the Press:  <i>Administr@tor</i> September 2006
Meet the Press:  Administr@tor September 2006

On May 9, 2004, a school bus from Liberty (MO) Public School District carrying more than 50 children hit two cars and careened into an embankment. The driver of one of the cars was killed, and about two dozen children were injured-two of them seriously.

As soon as the accident occurred, the school implemented its long-standing crisis communications plan, according to Jim Dunn, Liberty's director of communication services. "We had a fundamental understanding of what needed to be done," says Dunn. "By having a plan and a core set of values in place, we were able to quickly respond to a fast-moving emergency."

For the first 14 nights after the accident, Dunn sent an e-mail update to parents that included reports on the condition of the injured children. The daily message provided the community with a direct, continuous stream of accurate information. "It was obvious from the first moment after the bus crash that we cared deeply about the kids, and we would do whatever we could to address the situation in the best way possible," he says.

When it came to local media coverage, Liberty's prior efforts to foster goodwill among local media representatives paid huge dividends for the district. "We knew the Kansas City reporters by name," says Dunn. "We had helped them with previous stories. Our goodwill gave us a few hours to gather the facts and consider how best to convey our message. We asked the media to be a partner in disseminating information, and they worked with us to do that."

The key is having a system in place before distaster strikes: "You can't build bridges during a flood," Dunn says. "A communications program must be in place before a tragedy occurs, and the district must practice the art of good communications. Districts must start building a reservoir of goodwill with the media and the people in the community before a crisis. When the crisis comes-and it will come-the district must have established a set of core values, and its communications must be honest with people. You must do whatever it takes to get the job done."

Every year, the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine school shootings raises the possibility of triggering potential copycats in schools throughout the country. As the 2005 anniversary approached, a student in Fargo (ND) Public School District was caught mutilating herself in class. During the episode, the student expressed admiration for what had happened at Columbine, and she threatened to carry out a similar act at the Fargo school.

A few days after the incident, a rumor started in an online chat room suggesting that the student possessed a hit list and was planning a Columbine-style attack at the school on April 20. Although police determined that a list of intended victims did not exist and the girl's threats were not serious, the students, staff, and community remained frightened. Once the local police determined that there wasn't a credible threat against the school, the district arranged a joint press conference with the police department in an effort to bring about calm. "It was a situation in which anxiety was rising, but for no real reason," says Lowell Wolff, assistant to the superintendent for communications and planning at Fargo. In addition to the press conference, Wolff held meetings with staff members to share information about the situation and the administration's response. Moreover, he used e-mail to inform concerned parents.

Even with the PR efforts, approximately 200 students skipped classes on April 20. The school added additional police along bus routes, and senior administration officials were present to greet students as they arrived for classes.

"It is important to start early and get ahead of a situation fueled by rumors," says Wolff. "For example, a month before this year's Columbine anniversary, we used our newsletter to stress to the staff that we must be vigilant to the emergence of any similar situations. We stressed that communication between staff and administration was very important. Fortunately, there were no such incidents this year."

Wolff strongly recommends holding press conferences in situations like the one he faced in 2005. "In our case, the press was very cooperative. We had previously established a good relationship with the local press, and we asked them to help us calm the anxiety level. On April 20, there was minimal news coverage of the threat, and there were no television news cameras at the school."


Houston Superintendent Abe Saavedra addresses the press

In 2004, officials at Houston Independent School District (ISD) became aware of anomalies in test results at certain schools within the district. The unusual test score patterns caused them to launch an internal investigation. The district discovered that four schools were involved in test score fraud. Several teachers and administrators were either terminated or demoted as a result of the cheating.

"Upon discovering the test score anomalies, we announced that we were launching an investigation," says Terry Abbott, press secretary for Houston ISD. "Later, when we found the test scores were fraudulent, we held a news conference to announce all the details. We provided the media with copies of the inspector general's findings, and we announced the actions we were taking against the employees involved in the cheating." Abbott also used ISD's web site to communicate the steps the district was taking to resolve the issue.

The result was widespread coverage of the cheating as well as a lot of positive reporting on how aggressively the district addressed the problem. Abbott advises districts to report a problem at the earliest stage. "The public has a tremendous capability to forgive misdeeds and failures if the school district is willing to own up to the facts," he says. "The public will not stand for an attempt to cover up wrongdoings."

In the summer of 2001, three weeks before the school year was set to begin, construction crews working on a floor in the East Pennsboro High School cafeteria in Enola, Pennsylvania, accidentally disturbed asbestos that had been installed when the building was constructed in the 1950s. The material became airborne and contaminated the building, forcing it to be shut down until the problem could be resolved.

The delay meant the building would not be ready in time for the start of the fall semester. As soon as the nature of the problem became known, the district sent a mass mailing to all parents in the district, alerting them to the asbestos situation. "The letter outlined the problem," says Helen Belsak, director of communications and community relations for East Pennsboro Area School District. "We had to conduct tests, remediate the problem, and finish construction before the building could be reopened."

Once the message was sent, the press became aware of the issue and reported it. "We worked with the media to get our message out," says Belsak. "When something like this happens in a community of our size, it is big news. Our story was in the headlines for several weeks."

Belsak called an emergency meeting of all the district's administrative staff to discuss the problem. "We had a short amount of time in which to make important decisions."

To keep parents updated, the district used its web site. It also continued to send letters to parents.After the problem was fixed, the district held an open house for the media the day before the building was to be reopened for classes. Belsak described this as a move to appease the media's need for footage of the building while eliminating a potential disruption on the first day of classes. The tactic worked. "It was a very stressful time because the media wanted to be there filming the kids. It would have been chaotic. Instead, we had the open house. By doing this, we avoided a scene on the first day of school."

Belsak made sure she did her homework on the asbestos issue. Belsak says that anyone dealing with a technical issue needs to become familiar with the details. "I worked closely with our buildings and grounds people to better understand the problem," she says. "We also brought in experts to evaluate and explain the problem to us."

A few months prior to Katrina, Rochelle Cancienne, director of public information for the St. Charles Parish (LA) Public Schools, acquired a web-based district messaging system for distributing emergency messages to parents, employees, and community stakeholders. The tool was fully installed a few weeks before it was put to the test.

At the time the first warning message about Katrina was sent, Cancienne had no way of knowing that the school would be closed for 12 days and that the hurricane would knock out all of the traditional means of communicating with the people in her district. "Every other type of communication system inside the district was down, but because we had the system, we could continue to send messages to parents," she says. "The system was our lifeline."

Cancienne didn't rely solely on the messaging system. She took to the airwaves in nearby Baton Rouge, where many of the families from the district had fled. Through the cooperation of the media, Cancienne was able to broadcast a daily message on the local AM radio station, and several times a week she appeared on local television. In addition, she garnered national media coverage on the Today show, CNBC, and CNN. "It was a challenge to get national media attention because the main story was New Orleans," she says. "Therefore, the district messaging system was our only reliable means to reach everyone with news."

Planning is the critical factor in being able to handle a disaster such as Katrina. "Planning and practicing the plan is critical," she says. "That's not to say that we were able to follow our plan to the letter. However, it is critical to have a plan in place."It's also critical, according to Cancienne, to establish strong relationships with entities within the community such as the media, utilities, and local government.

After the disaster is over, it's important to take time to evaluate how the plan worked, she adds. "By studying our response to Katrina, we have already done a better job in preparing for the 2006 hurricane season."

Cancienne reports that the district is in negotiations with a local TV station to build a satellite television studio and production facility in the district. "In the event that St. Charles Parish must be evacuated again, we now have a communications vehicle that is open to us whenever we need it."

Cancienne concludes, "It's about planning and getting the messages out. If the public hears your voice on a consistent basis, it gives them some level of comfort."

In one of the largest financial scandals in a public school district in U.S. history, several members of the Roslyn (NY) Public Schools administration-including the superintendent-embezzled or misappropriated more than $11.2 million of district funds. A police investigation culminated in the indictment of the superintendent and several other administrators for grand larceny.  "The community was in an uproar," says Barry Edelson, director of community relations for Roslyn Public Schools. "Since we are in the New York media market, the coverage of the scandal was widespread, especially during the first six months of the crisis.

"For the most part, coverage of the scandal took on a life of its own," says Edelson. "The newspapers and media outlets had people assigned to the story on an ongoing basis. We were in almost daily contact with reporters. It was all-consuming. We went through months of dealing with the issue."

There was little Edelson could do to be heard above the hype generated by the scandal. Instead, because the issue didn't affect everyday school functions, Edelson continued to publicize all of the good things that were happening during the course of the school year. "We kept up a steady flow of regular news releases," he says. "We put out press releases about the normal happenings within the school. We did this to maintain a sense of continuity so that even in the wake of the scandal, parents would see that the school was functioning normally."

Edelson is reflective and realistic about communications strategies in the wake of a criminal scandal of this scale. "From a PR standpoint, I learned a valuable lesson: There are times when there is literally nothing that can be done from a communications perspective. The wisest thing to do is to pick your moments to communicate."

Edelson continues, "It's best to accept the fact that a scandal of this magnitude is going to adversely affect the reputation of the district for a long time. The key is to shorten the shelf life of the scandal, and the best way to do that is to get all of the bad news out as quickly as possible."

When the Puyallup (WA) School District notified the PTA and its teachers in October 2004 that they could not hold Halloween parties during class time, all but one of the 31 schools in the district complied and substituted some form of after-school harvest celebration.

After being inundated with media inquiries about the district's Halloween party decision, Karen Hansen, director of communications and executive services at Puyallup School District, developed a set of media talking points for administration and staff. "We met with our staff in the central administrative office to review the situation, and we assigned talking points to trusted people in key positions," she says. "We also explained the decision to our bus drivers, clerical staff, and custodians so they would have a better understanding of how this incident affected the lives of the minority of children who didn't share the same beliefs as the majority." At the school board meeting where the issue was aired there was a large media presence. "We established a set of protocols for the media," says Hansen. "The reporters who attended the meeting were gracious and observed our rules."

Although the decision received national and international coverage, Hansen stuck to the district's talking points and declined all but a few opportunities to speak with the media. "The first thing to do in this type of situation is to develop talking points," says Hansen. "Messages become muddled when people stray from their talking points. We tried to stay on message. The media, especially television journalists, tried to elicit a different message-or ask questions to move us off our talking points-but we stayed consistent with our message."

Hansen reports that it is possible to set up media protocols and expect them to be respected by the media. "A school district can be firm with the media," she says.

"It is a good idea to bring the issue back to the children," she concludes. "We are trying to do the best we can for them. This is a good message for school districts, and it happens to be true."

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