Wednesday, March 4, 2009

PR Idea of the Week

This week I just couldn't look away from the PR-wreck in process with a local school district. It's almost comical how predictable the story is. It goes like this:

  1. Local school district writes well-intentioned code of conduct with "zero tolerance" type policies.
  2. Cute first grader brings in a plastic knife to cut her cupcake, or 6th grade punk gives cough drop to his girlfriend, or kindergartner kisses a classmate, or wrestler steals (or forgets to pay for) $1.30 worth of cookies
  3. Gutless principal is very sorry but he MUST apply all the rules to EVERYONE THE SAME and also the punishment
  4. Astounded parents, accompanied by their lawyer, go to the court of public opinion (and real court) via the media
  5. School board and other school officials hide behind policy of not discussing student disciplinary issues
  6. Minor situation that could have been handled by a detention becomes national news story
  7. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until community is completely divided and/or media move on to something else
As a PR person who enjoys a juicy school vs. media showdown, I say why introduce common sense at this juncture. Your zero tolerance approach is really working for you (let me know how that school tax levy campaign goes, will you).

But as a mother, voter and more importantly, a taxpayer, I would like to see schools start thinking about how winning the war of public opinion is always more important than winning the battle over little Suzie's plastic spork.

How to get a passing grade in PR 101:
  1. Insert a common sense clause into your handbook. The American Bar Association has a very thoughtful report on zero tolerance. A key quote: Schools are confusing equal treatment with equitable treatment. . . . Kids in middle school and high school care most about fairness. When they see two students whose 'offenses' are vastly different being treated exactly the same, that sense of fairness is obliterated and replaced with fear and alienation.
  2. Speak up. Assuming you have followed the first rule, then don't wait five media cycles to say something in the school's defense. You have a duty to the rest of your well-behaved students not to let parents, lawyers or media smear your district unfairly.
  3. Get some media training for the school board and key administrators. Don't let your school board send poorly-written emotional notes to the media after the story has almost died down.
  4. Grow a pair--of externally focused eyes--that are able to see how the real world is going to perceive what is happening inside your little educational bubble.
  5. There will be a test. Actually, it will start out as a pop quiz to see how well your administration can handle an unanticipated breech of student rules. Follow steps 1-4 above, and maybe we won't need to cover the same materials on the final.

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