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PR Blunders: Why Schools Need PR Pros
By: Patrick Foughty, APR
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It seems that on about a monthly basis some school, somewhere in this country, gets called out for making some ridiculous policy decision that lacks common sense and empathy. This often happens when a student says or does something in ignorance or defiance, resulting in a swift knee-jerk reaction to suspend or expel the student, followed by a bizarre and aloof official statement and awkward backtracking followed by a mini-movement of parents, other students, community leaders, and even legislators essentially saying ‘What the heck?’

Some recent examples may further this point.

In Maryland a six-year-old student attempted to mold his breakfast pastry into a mountain and it came out looking like a gun...at least, that’s what authorities decided as they handed him a two-day suspension. After the boy’s father requested an appeal to have the suspension erased from his record, this official statement was provided by a spokesman: "We got it. It gets reviewed and we'll go from there." There is no release or statement on the school system website but there is a movement afoot in the Maryland state legislature to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. The overreaction, that is.

A few weeks later
at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), a student refused to participate in what he argued was an affront to his religious beliefs when a professor asked the class to write the name "Jesus" on a paper and stomp on it. The university played a game in which they actually told the student he was not allowed to attend class and that he was under academic review for his denouncing of the teaching method while coming clean to the public after a national outcry and stating that “…no student has been expelled, suspended or disciplined by the university as a result of any activity that took place during this class.”

The list goes on, and regardless of what you think of the incidents, the reactions and the PR thought process (or lack thereof) is what is most concerning. It’s readily apparent that either the top communicator was not in the room when these decision are made, or perhaps more frightening, the top communicator was sitting at the table happily drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid and joining the high-five fest, or they aren’t really a communicator at all, but simply a glorified education professional pretending to be a communicator.

Whatever the case, it seems that many school systems in this country, from elementary to university, need to examine their decision-making processes and have some step that asks, "How will this look on the front page of the paper? Will suspending a six-year-old for playing with food mean an entire Facebook Fan page dedicated to our demise? Will the outside world disregard our policy logic and only see ‘Six Year Old suspended for playing with food’ or ‘University Student suspended for standing up for religious beliefs?’ Will social media groups go viral in protest? If so, what narrative will the news media follow — theirs or ours?" (Hint: It won’t be the school system’s).

If an unpopular decision is made, what will the PR response be? Especially if your decision turns what was previously a latent public, not caring one way or another about you, into an activist public, making all kinds of fuss. 

All too often schools, government agencies, and other large organizations get stuck in their own mountains of policy and processes. This is where a solid PR person, with one eye inside the organization and the other looking outside, is key. But aside from being in the room, the PR person also needs the experience and the intestinal fortitude to tell the boss when they’re wrong and remind them that they’re not just dealing with policy, but with people in an information environment that will pass judgment quickly and harshly if a poor decision is made.


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About the Author
Patrick Foughty is a former helicopter pilot turned PR lover. He pays bills by playing the role of Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Navy in Washington D.C. where he manages media operations and digital media for his organization. When he's not thinking about PR he's working on his first novel or studying medieval history.
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