Saturday, April 3, 2010

Got a bad soloist? Get a bigger choir!

This may surprise a few of you, but in my early years I actually was a choirboy. At the awkward age of 12 I was the sole member of the Baritone Section in the youth choir at Westchester Presbyterian Church. What can I say, my voice dropped early and kept going south all through my teens. I realized very quickly that if I was flat or sharp everyone in the congregation would know it. God, how I resented all those wimpy tenors who could mask their vocal miscues within a larger group! That lesson stuck with me like scripture: If you don’t want to hear a solo off-key voice you need to surround it with plenty of better singers.

The reverse is also true, if all you hear is the bad soloist, you begin to think the entire choir stinks! My problem is that sometimes our most important debates are shaped by only a few loud angry voices with their own insistent agendas. Being the loudest voice in the room — this seems to be the hallmark of societal discourse these days.

Whether it’s picketing teachers, angry parents resisting school closures, catcalls in Congress, venomous talk show terrorists, edgy newspaper reporters, or biased bloggers they all seem to believe that acrimonious volume will carry the day. They create a cacophony of negativity and a growing sense that to disagree in the 21st Century we have to be disagreeable. The louder, the better.

There has never been a time that I can recall when we had so many controversial, highly-charged emotional issues on our plate in the public schools. The state is systematically de-investing in public education. We are being asked to balance a 2010 budget on a 2005 income. That formula just doesn’t add up and relationships in the educational community are showing the stress and strain. Frustration, scapegoating, blame-shifting, and turf wars abound as we deal with fewer resources to handle mounting problems.

Remember this:

“When the pie gets smaller, the first things to go are the table manners! In this rollercoaster economy, people are wrestling over the table scraps in a public food fight.”

I enjoy a robust public policy debate as much as the next guy, but geez, where has common decency, civility and reasoned debate gone? Out the window I’m afraid. In recent months, I’ve brushed up against some pretty dogmatic, unethical, self-righteous soap-boxers with this unflinching attitude -

“If the facts of a situation don’t fit my preconceptions, I’ll reject them out of hand and condemn the person who points them out to me!”

This same group of hostile aggressive types is willing to jump to conclusions based on only a shred of evidence, feel some perceived slight or hidden agenda at the drop of a hat, and amplify the noise to drown out those who disagree. Nobody wants to accept the reality check that we can no longer conduct business as usual. Nobody wants to give in. Nobody wants to play well with others.

To be fair, many entities of government (including public schools) have spawned and inflamed this attitude because we have not been transparent, responsive or engaging enough in the past. Is it any surprise when people don’t feel heard that they yell a little louder?

Here are some ways to “put a sock in it” with a bad soloist:

1. Make sure you’re singing on key yourself

When you say something publicly have your facts straight, give people straight talk, and deliver your message clearly and pervasively. Model the vocal chops you expect in others.

2. Sing in your own choir loft, not theirs

Never react in a war of words on a critical blog or in the letters-to-the-editor columns because all you do is drive attention to those forums. Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel or his Internet presence in gigabytes because they will always have the last word. Make them irrelevant by shifting the debate onto venues that you can control like your own web site, Op Ed pieces, or district publications.

3. Set the standard for what sounds right

Play to your home field advantage by framing the conversation about key issues. Define the themes, key messages, and factual foundation that everyone works from. Be seen as the definitive resource on the key issues that affect your organization. Don’t just react to what others say first; be the lead singer in the debate.

4. Create an ensemble of positive voices singing your praises

You’re known by the company you keep. Enlist community opinion leaders or people with unique and relevant views to promote a more balanced discussion. Give people talking points so they practice message discipline on your behalf. We should all be singing off the same song sheet. Think of yourself as the conductor or choir director orchestrating a community of voices on a topic.

5. Give them voice lessons, if they’ll listen

Sometimes bad singer just doesn’t have the right sheet music and that’s why they’re making it up as they go along. This could be a teachable moment to transform a critic into a supporter. Don’t presume they can’t change their tune because if you do they probably won’t.

We spend 90% of our time in school administration dealing with the 10% of our stakeholders who disagree with us or have problems with the way we do things. In these troubled times we need everyone to lend their voice to our cause. If they do, maybe we can drown out the negativists and naysayers that seem to relish the spotlight and attack the integrity of public education. Public education has a song worth singing.

All together now . . . Halleluiah!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Total Quality Communication to Unlock the Communicator(s) Inside

We can learn a lot in school communications from the concept of Total Quality Management. Sweating the small stuff was all the rage as part of the TQM movement a few decades ago. The basic theory was that if you did minute details well, the total experience or product would be excellent. Now sweating the small stuff is somewhat passé as we want to make everyone a “big picture” person. However, too often our failure to communicate at the individual employee level is the small stuff that trips us up.

When all is said and done, most of the thorniest problems I’ve encountered in my 35-year career in public school PR occurred because of poor communication. That isn’t to diminish the tragic impact of the school shootings, earthquakes, bus accidents, and other biblical acts of God and Mother Nature that I’ve had to deal with. They take their toll and leave deep scars for sure. But many of the high profile conflicts and controversies that have become the all-too-prevalent hallmark of public education policy setting and operations usually stem from a breakdown in communication.

Drilling down to the lowest levels in an organization, poor communication is often the root of our problems and the reason for our undoing. Our education “system” somehow develops a reputation for bad communication, but most of the people in the system are left blameless. How can that be? Systems don’t communicate, people do!

Rigid insistence on ideology, pedagogy, pathology, terminology and all the other “ologies” gets in the way of honest respectful two-way communication. It can strip employees, parents, community activists, and interest groups of their ability to listen strategically and openly to other viewpoints. Just reference the sour grapes, venomous backlash to the federal health care legislation, or the labor union taking a vote of no confidence in a superintendent just because they can’t get their way at the bargaining table, or the office staff sandbagging and demonizing a manager who’s trying to change procedures and assignments?

Why is it that we tolerate and revert to being so disagreeable just because we disagree? Because people are not held accountable for their lousy communication practices! And, people think they know how to communicate well and they often don’t!

Two observations that illustrate this point:

Everyone is an expert on what we do
For some reason, conventional wisdom maintains that everyone springs from the womb fully capable and equipped to communicate verbally, non-verbally, and in writing. That simply is not the case. Some of the worst communicators I’ve brushed up against truly believe they communicate quite well. For example, ever had someone look at you and say, “What’s wrong?” You think you’re fine, but your body language is screaming that you’re not! Quality communication is part science, a dash of art, with whole lot of experience and technique thrown in. Quality communication is a learned skill, not an innate attribute in every individual.

The impact on school communication professionals of this misplaced belief is that everyone thinks they can do our job (maybe even better than us). For example, ever send out a newsletter to a committee for review and comment? You’ll quickly find that while most actors really want to be directors, most educators desperately want to be editors. They “grade” our work as if they are the premier experts and sometimes their edits are wrong!

Communication always seems to be somebody else’s responsibility or only one person’s responsibility
Typically in the communication audits I conduct for school districts people complain that the system doesn’t communicate to them. They never admit that they, in fact, are the system and they have some culpability if the “system” fails to communicate. About 85 cents out of every educational dollar these days is spent on a human being. Employees complain that problems stem from “You didn’t communicate well with me!” Rarely do they admit, “I didn’t take the time to read the materials you sent, listen to your voice mail, read my emails thoroughly, or pay attention in the meeting!”

If a school district is wise enough to employ a professional chief communicator then all too often “communication” becomes their job alone and others feel entitled to abrogate and delegate any personal accountability or responsibility for communicating about what they are doing. “Oh, that’s not my job, that’s hers.” It is an easy out to simply sweep all of the organization’s communication chores into a stinking pile and leave it at the office door of the school PR person.

Here are some suggestions to develop a communicating culture in your schools:

(1) Build communication into decision-making
Do you have meetings? Sure you do; maybe even too many meetings. How about this: require that before you move on to the next agenda item in each meeting you have the people in the room spend five minutes answering this question:

“How are we going to communicate about what we just decided or discussed?”

It’s not enough to make decisions if people don’t know about them. Who better to talk about how best to reach stakeholders with the subject matter than the people in the room discussing that subject matter? That’s a communication tool that doesn’t cost a dime to implement, but it can yield powerful results.

(2) Evaluate and reward communication performance
Acceptable communication skills should be a line item in every employee’s written job description. We should evaluate employees not just on their ability to do their job, but on how well they communicate while they’re doing their job.

(3) Model the behaviors and values we expect in others
Media guru Roger Ailes once advised Ronald Reagan, “Remember Mr. President, you are the message.” Employees inside our public schools can be our best and worst messengers because they transmit messages about our competency as an organization to serve people, solve problems, and deliver a quality educational product. Leaders can unlock the communication potential within their organizations if they have a tireless insistence on quality communication, interaction and relationships at every level by every individual — especially in themselves!

(4) When you have a terrible soloist, get a bigger choir!
Frequently, we are ruled by the loudest voice in the room, the overbearing bully who makes us uncomfortable, or the last person we talk to. When these negative voices dominate the debate it’s time to engage more rational voices to drown them out. The bigger the choir the less one bad singer makes our group sound off key. By emphasizing quality communication in every other employee, the miscommunicating employee can learn by example. Making quality communication matter protects your organization from a negativity virus that can be spread by a single individual to ruin your organization’s communication health.

Whether you sweep the place out at night or you’re the CEO you need to see yourself as a total quality communicator. Sweat the small stuff in communication and the big stuff might just take care of itself!

Friday, February 26, 2010

You Crisis Communication Plan Might Need a Spring Cleaning

A sad fact of life for public school communicators is that March Madness isn’t just about basketball anymore. It seems that pent up frustrations accumulating over a school year force some troubled students, employees and parents to act in strange and bizarre ways as we move into Spring. If you track the rash of campus shootings that plagued public schools across the country over the last ten years they all fell within the four-month storm window of February to May. The question remains, is your crisis communications plan up-to-date? If you haven’t given it a thorough review since last year maybe it’s time for a Spring Cleaning.

Here are few suggestions on things to look for when reviewing your written emergency response plans:

Do you have a written Emergency Response Plan?
I can’t tell you the number of districts I work with that still don’t have a detailed written emergency response plan for the school district. Site usually have site emergency plans, but districts don't. Even if you’re a small district you still need one, especially in case your lead crisis manager or superintendent is out of the district or incapacitated. Plans should be what I like to call “self executing.” That means people automatically know what they are supposed to do during the first thirty minutes of a crisis without direction from the district office or being told in a meeting. The writing process helps clarifying responsibilities, reactions, and obstacles that you might need to overcome.

Are your communication tools current and up-to-date?
Technology changes frequently in school districts. Equipment is replaced or transferred. Phone systems and numbers are amended. Your database of contacts is out-of-date almost from the day you enter it. When was the last time you did an inventory of Emergency Kits, or checked the phone batteries and chargers for example? Don’t assume things are where you left them! Will your staff still have the ready access to phone numbers, pagers and radio links that worked during your crisis drill last year?

Have personnel changed and do they all know their responsibilities in the case of an emergency?
Sadly, with school district layoffs, reassignments and retirements occuring over the past few years, your crisis team's "bench strength" may have been greatly diminished. Is the old chain of command in a crisis still intact? Are all of the boxes on your table of organization still occupied and valid? Maybe it’s time to run another crisis communication/response workshop. Crisis manuals and binders have probably been misplaced or are missing some contents.

Is your network of community responders current?
If you haven’t had to use your crisis plan lately, then there may have been changes of personnel and key contacts in law enforcement, health care, community services, and local government agencies. The last thing you need in a crisis is to be fumbling through the phone book trying to identify the right person you need to solve a problem.

Is it time to freshen up your news media contact list?
Just to be safe, maybe you need to connect with assignment editors and reporters to let them know again about your protocols for handling public communication and access during a crisis.

Are you able to quickly use new media and technology to get your message out within the first thirty minutes after a crisis hits?
Many districts are integrating Twitter, Facebook, web sites, auto-dialing phone systems, blast emails, YouTube, webcasts and blogs as regular communication tools. Have you thought through how you can use these to the maximum effect during a crisis or emergency situation? For example, have your IT folks created an Emergency Response web page that is dark for the time being but can be activated with the flip of a switch when you need it? This web site can have templates, key contact links, and other resources already embedded so they can be quickly edited and adjusted for your specific emergency situation.

The school communications professional has become a key player in school crisis response. At a time when school districts are weighing the relative value of laying off teachers or PIOs, we need to make sure we can demonstrate our value. A crisis is your opportunity to fail or succeed in a highly visible venue. The students, parents, employees and community will be looking to you for answers and abilities to cope with a tragedy, disaster or critical situation. Are you prepared? Can you exceed their expectations? Doing a little Spring Cleaning now can give you the edge you may need when the unthinkable occurs.

For more information access

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Are you ready for your Olympic “moment of truth?”

Sometimes, there is a very fine line between achieving to the highest standards you’ve set for yourself and crashing in defeat.

I have been captivated by this concept throughout the XXI Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver. These athletes have spent on average 30,000 hours over 4-8 years (or maybe even decades) learning the miniscule details of their craft, conditioning their bodies and minds for the rigors of performing on an international stage, and creating and successfully executing a winning plan.

Yet even with their best-laid strategies and hard work, it all comes down to executing their very best effort at one precise moment in time. Time and again I’ve heard former Olympians comment during TV interviews that it doesn’t matter how well you’ve done on the circuit or how many world championships you won in the past. It is how you execute on that day when you take to the ice, head out the gate, or push to the finish line that makes all the difference. These Olympians certainly know that right beside the thrill of victory can be the agony of defeat.

-- Fifty yards from the finish line your ski hits a rut or a soft patch of snow and you come careening head-long down the hill at 70 miles an hour to land in a heap at the goal line.

-- Memories of nailing that quad/triple jump in hundreds of practice sessions evaporate as you launch skyward from the ice in an adrenaline rush slightly off center and end up on your backside as the music plays on.

--Ready to take your place on the medal stand only to have a competitor/colleague make one miscalculation, cut you off and send you crashing into the wall or gate — your Olympic moment ended.

In school communications, we also have those “moments of truth” that test our capacity and our character as individuals and professionals. We may be very good at our craft and are seen as successful and accomplished in what we do. But that gets tested to the limit when we are in the white hot spotlight of a high profile situation. Our educational organizations and our colleagues are counting on us — we are counting on ourselves — to muster every tool, trick, and technique we can to achieve success in the public eye.

Here are a few reflections on making it matter in the moment of truth:

Sweat the small stuff so you’re ready for the big stuff!
Be prepared and practice scenarios and “what ifs” so you’re ready when you get the call. Olympians teach us that achieving excellence isn’t an overnight activity and that luck has very little to do with it. You are what you do and you achieve what you practice. A gold medal is not a lottery ticket. It’s a diploma tenaciously earned from the school of hard knocks!

Get your head in the game!
Olympians (and other people operating at high professional levels for that matter) have one common characteristic that separates them from the pack: the ability to focus with laser-like precision all of their experience and expertise to succeed when it really counts. Gold medalists are able to block out the clutter and noise, keep their head when all others are losing it, dominate their fears, and push back against uncertainty and anxiety. Can you be the “Go To” person that everyone relies on when all hell is breaking loose? That will put you on the podium.

Be resilient and persevere!
Defeat is a lesson, not a failure. Some of the most endearing images from these Olympics are from athletes who labor tireless with little recognition to savor that one moment when they did their personal best for all of the world to see. The test of your character is the comeback you make from injuries and disappointments (especially when they are the result of your own mistakes or miscalculations). In that moment of truth you prove to yourself what you are truly made of. In this economy, how you rebound from a job loss may indeed be your Olympic moment.

Ever feel like one day you’re the hockey goalie blocking shots at your district and the next you’re an ice dancer trying to demonstrate the art and style of educational achievement?

Versatility is our stock in trade. School communication professionals are unique in the education world. We cut across all disciplines from finance to facilities; technology to teaching. Other than the superintendent, we are the one person in the organization that needs to be at least nominally proficient in everything about education. What we do every day is like competing in a decathlon that combines skating, skiing, jumping, sliding, and even curling. Now that would be a gold medal performance worthy of the XXII Winter Olympics!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tiger & Toyota: At-Risk Reputation Management

Tiger Woods is the number one golfer in the world. Toyota is the biggest car company. They each set the standard for excellence in their respective fields. They each enjoyed enviable blue chip reputations. They each dominated their industries and in both cases millions, if not billions of dollars were on the line as they performed.

Yet, within a few months of each other both are now facing unprecedented crises in public confidence. Will it be a permanent fall from grace or just a temporary setback?

As I watch these parallel situations unfold, I can’t help but reflect on what we as school communicators can learn from the Tiger & Toyota scandals. Here are some observations:

Denial is not an option; where there’s smoke there’s surely going to be a firestorm
There were plenty of warning signs that Tiger and Toyota had problems and that it was only a matter of time before the lid would blow. There were mutterings about on-tour trysts by the legendary golfer and internal memos now reveal that Toyota was in denial for months about the real cause of its sticking gas pedals. Instead of decisively confronting those warning signs, both chose to hope they would stay confidential. The lesson here: in today’s microscopic society public figures must presume that their inner most actions will eventually become public. The real question is how that will occur, not whether it will. The number one rule of PR: Do A Good Job! They should have done a good job to clean up their acts and not blindly hope they could keep their poor performance under wraps.

Break your own bad news instead of letting others break it over your head
A delayed response enables and empowers others to frame your message and the resulting commentary. Many will question whether Tiger should have made a huge public apology. Where was the CEO of Toyota during the first few days after the gas pedal recall? Neither came forward to set the record straight. The public needed and wanted a public face to reassure us. In the absence of one, every tabloid, shock jock and self-appointed expert filled the gap.

I recall several years ago when a Southwest Airlines jet overshot the end of the Burbank Airport runway and parked itself a few yards into Hollywood Way. Within 30 minutes, SWA CEO Herb Kelleher was on TV assuming responsibility, telling us they would thoroughly investigate what happened so it wouldn’t happen again, and reassuring us that it was still safe to fly Southwest. Today, Southwest Airlines is the only profitable airline in the country and has retained its rock solid reputation. I fly a lot and my airline of choice is still Southwest.

When you think it’s bottomed out, be prepared to dig a little deeper
You always want yours to be a one-day story. These both seem to be unraveling as soap opera sagas. The traditional and non-traditional news outlets love unfolding human drama. They’re in a feeding frenzy on a steady diet of controversy that extends the coverage and keeps the spotlight glaring with every new angle. The reputations of both Tiger and Toyota have been bleeding out over days and weeks instead of hours. The reason: daily announcements with more and juicier details coming to light . . . so stayed tuned. The lesson here is to get the worst behind you quickly so you can concentrate on damage control and reputation repair. Your goal is to not be the butt of the opening monologue jokes on Jay Leno or David Letterman for more than a day.

In today’s mixed media environment the story takes on a life of its own
In both cases, the public personas thought they could control the message by limiting the message. In the era of citizen-journalists and personality-driven news, every pundit, blogger, commentator, and columnist adds fuel to the firestorm. If you don’t fill the informational vacuum, others will. The story goes viral quickly and you cannot even know far it reaches and gets distorted.

Swift decisive action may be the only way to staunch the bleeding
Tiger benched himself from the PGA tour ostensibly to deal with his sex addiction and salvage his marriage. Toyota shut down the production line ostensibly to focus on repairing the cars it had already sold. In both cases, they did not want to further risk losing consumer confidence by operating their “business as usual.” If Tiger had continued to play golf, but do it poorly because he had lost his concentration then he would have lost the very foundation of his reputation. I have been a loyal 25-year Toyota customer with three of their vehicles parked in my garage. Their top brass need to make sure I can trust what comes off the production line or their reputation for excellence will give way to lingering doubts. I applaud both decisions to shut down. Sometimes when your computer is acting up the best solution is just to re-boot. That’s exactly what Tiger and Toyota decided to do . . . Re-boot their Reputations.

Do something really great to improve the after-taste
Tiger’s first tournament victory will go a long way toward restoring his place in history. The number of Tour wins instead of the number of girlfriends is how he needs to be measured in the history books. Show us you are great for the right reasons Tiger. I'm rooting for you. Toyota missed the chance to use the second highest rated media event, The Super Bowl, to tell its true story. It is only now airing nostalgic reputation-building commercials on TV. The car maker needs to use TV coverage on the highest-rated world stage . . . The Olympic Games . . . as the venue to re-shape and reinforce its reputation. Getting the facts out is one thing, but we all remember stories. Toyota needs satisfied customers to tell its story once again to the world. You can’t tell us you’re safe or great Toyota; you need other believable people to tell us you still are.

There is a big difference between being famous and having a solid reputation. Anyone can be famous, but probably for the wrong reasons. Octo-Mom, the gate-crashing Salahis, and other one-hit wonders come and go with their 15 minutes of fame. Our public schools need to cultivate a deep and pervasive reputation for excellence and they need to nurture, protect and manage that reputation well. School districts are counting on their chief communicators to grow the organization’s reputation especially at the moments of truth when they appear in the white hot glare of the public spotlight.