Vail Daily column: Being authentic
Recently, I was asked to present as part of a panel discussion at the Colorado School Public Relations Association conference in Aurora. The topic of our conversation was “Being Authentic.” The panel consisted of several top-notch public relations professionals from large districts, the Colorado Department of Education and an education advocacy nonprofit.
Some might wonder why schools even need public relations professionals (we call ours a chief communications officer). Simply, our schools operate in a world of complex and competing messages. The need to have clear communications with our parents, students, staff and the community is more important than ever.
To make sure important information is clearly communicated and (more importantly) understood, school public relations involves the same sort of efforts you might see in the private sector. Attention to things like branding, color scheme, a professional look and feel to the communications efforts — all of these are of critical importance. However, it’s the content that really matters.
Sharing information about what’s going on in our district openly, honestly and consistently builds relationships based on understanding and support, critically important during hard times or crisis situations.
The most fun part of school public relations is telling our community about the really cool and amazing things happening with our kids and schools. Parents and friends enjoy hearing about the awards, celebrations, honors and sports wins. Kids get excited and motivated when they see their work in print, on social media or in the newsletters. We want to make sure everyone gets those messages loud and clear!
However, too often the work of educational public relations devolves into traditional public relations “spin.” We see and hear repeated “talking points” aimed at emphasizing one aspect of a conversation over another. Clever “info-graphics,” overly simplistic sound-bites and catchy one-liners are created to boil down complex and detailed issues that really need a thoughtful and reasoned discussion to be fully understood.
While the outcome may be short-term wins, they do not lead us to what is really needed: mutual understanding and respect.
Thankfully, there is an alternative path, which I’d argue is more effective in the long-run: being authentic. The goal should be to create a conversation. Dropping the spin requires us to be vulnerable, open and trusting. Honest and open dialogue reinforces credibility and brings a level of quality to the conversation. Instead of making sure a message is heard at the expense of others, we should be listening — and hearing other points of view.
The traditional spin approach to a problem is “decide-announce-defend.” Being authentic means engaging the entire community in understanding an issue and (even more importantly) coming up with the right solution for our context.
When things go wrong, being authentic means owning up, taking responsibility and being candid about what happened and what we learned.
Spin and propaganda techniques are certainly still heavily used. We need only turn on the latest coverage of the presidential race to see it in action. In the short term, these approaches can be effective — creating rhetorical wins or diminishing the voice of an opposing faction.
But there are also significant tolls to be paid. Public cynicism, the erosion of trust, apathy and an ultimate unwillingness to engage in public discourse — these are all symptoms of an over-reliance on spin and propaganda as a communications technique.
At the grand scale, I have no illusions that spin and propaganda will cease to exist. However, I do know that it doesn’t have to be this way for our schools and community. We can be different — and we should.
Jason E. Glass is the superintendent of Eagle County Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.