Seattle Schools Yipes!

It’s about effective communications, not the protocol. Lock-Box-2

The imbroglio with the teacher’s union in the Seattle school district is the latest in a series of communications snafus – several of which star local school districts.

The days of communicating with stakeholders first, as a matter of “courtesy” or “respect” and then filling in the gaps with the media and the blogosphere are over. School districts and other government agencies seem to be among the last to learn this important lesson.

It’s not about “respect,” it’s about controlling the dissemination of information in a rational way, and as an institution, trying to give the appearance that you are staying above the fray.

If you’re going to lay off teachers, decide on the messaging, polish it, and release it to the teacher’s union, the media, school sites, the blogosphere and parents in the same nanosecond. Do not send it around the email chain for feedback and approvals – and do not send it to the print shop. Good grief – it’s going to get hijacked. How can that not be common knowledge today?

The policy makers need to sit in a room, collaborate on the sole copy of the document in a secure computer and then release it from that very same administrator’s computer at the appointed hour.

It might seem a little insular and backward, but at least you won’t look like the Keystone Cops. And you know something, the process doesn’t have to be backwards and insular – it can be an open collaboration – but the document dealing with an enterprise-critical communication has to remain in the CEO’s custody for final approval, and top line dissemination. The message doesn’t have to be insular and backward either. Make it as transparent as possible. The budget crisis provides perfect cover for a teacher layoff.

But when you get blown-up coming right out of the chute because of how the information was released, you’re instantly on the defensive – which negates the advantage you had by virtue of the state’s budget crisis.

I’m not taking sides on the actual issue. But it is foolish to think that any “side” in such a highly charged atmosphere isn’t going to try to take advantage of the rule of “being first” and spinning the initial news cycle in its favor. Once you’re responding instead of leading, you’re cooked. If the teacher’s union wants to do a pre-emptive campaign, more power to them – but the district shouldn’t be feeding them the grist for their mill because of some mindless communications snafu.

The Seattle School District’s communications staff probably got jobbed on this whole thing in a cascading comedy of errors, but now they’re out trying to clean up a mess that again, only confirms our worst suspicions about how the government schools operate.