Principal failure: Why public relations matters for school districts and how some places are really, really bad at it

Few organizations have a greater need for public relations assistance than do educational institutions. Between edgy parents, state oversight and a rotating stream of burnt out teachers, schools tend to have a need for a calming influence and a clear voice during turbulent periods.

I’ve dealt with a number of administrations over the years, primarily when someone does something dumb that infringes upon the free press rights of students, and I’ve found that if these folks just had someone to help them plan what to say and how to say it… well… they’d end up a lot better off.

Here’s an example of what can go wrong without some PR help:

My daughter is entering her junior year at the local high school, which had been looking for a full-time principal for about a year. Like everything else, the administration at the school was kind of in flux due to the pandemic. Eventually, though, the school hired someone for the job.
With school right around the corner, the parents recently received an email from the new hire at the school:

August 11, 2021

Hello Omro Foxes!

Welcome back to the Fox Den.

    I am Chris Fox, the new Principal of the Omro High School Fighting Foxes.  Yes, that really is my last name.  I am settling into the building and meeting new people everyday.  I look forward to meeting all of the outstanding students and their families as we begin a new school year.  We are going to have a great school year lifting each other to new heights and continuously improving.  The maintenance and custodial crews are working very hard to improve the building and put a clean new look into the Fox Den.  Teachers and staff are enjoying their summer but are very excited about meeting the students in their classrooms again.  We want to welcome all returning students and our new students to Omro High School.

The letter goes on to talk about new people in new places and all the great stuff we’ll be seeing this year. Overall, he seems like a nice guy, he has some humor (our mascot is the fox, so that’s kind of amusing) and he’s got some interesting background. This could be a good start to the year.

The next day, we get this emailed to us:

As a parent (OK, probably more because I’m a nosy journalist…) I was a bit perplexed that within a period of less than 24 hours, we went from “Hey I’m the new guy and I’m excited” to a tersely worded statement from the superintendent saying the “new guy” is now the “former guy.” So, I shot an email to Superintendent Jay Jones, asking what the heck happened, knowing full well he probably couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me anything. His response came on Aug. 13:

Good Morning Vince,
I am not allowed to provide the reason that Mr. Fox decided to resign. Mr. Fox has employee/personal rights that must be followed. He tendered his resignation this week and the board met last night and approved the resignation.
Jay Jones

In doing some basic math, I realized that if Fox sent his “glad to be here” message on Wednesday and the board approved his resignation on Thursday, that resignation was likely turned in before that initial message went out. At best, it was the same day he sent it. Regardless, his response made things weirder, not clearer, for me.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like this, oddly enough. The principal who was supposed to take over my grade school when I was in eighth grade bailed on us just before the start of school to take a better job with more money.

So, I went to his LinkedIn page to see if maybe a rival school had ponied up a better gig and found this:

(A bit flummoxed, I sent a note to an Omro Facebook group, asking if anyone knew what was going on. Of the flood of messages I got, about one-third came from parents who asked the same thing, one-sixth made jokes about how this was somehow Joe Biden’s or Donald Trump’s fault and the rest chastised me for “starting the rumor mill” or being a general a-hole for digging into the man’s private life. )

I could continue to dig into this guy and this situation for days, trying to get someone to answer the basic “What the heck is going on around here?” question, but that’s not the point of this post. The point here is that there were several simple things public relations professionals could have done to help the school district cut all this off at the pass. Here are a couple of those things:

PLAN FIRST, WRITE SECOND: I have seen a number of these three-line press releases before from school districts, police folks and other organizations that should be hiring PR professionals. They come across like a Jedi mind trick: “We are making a statement. You will have no questions. Go back about your business with the innocence of a newborn kitten.”

That’s not going to happen, so you need to plan for it.

People are going to be upset, curious, nosy, worried and a dozen other things in a situation like this. We have lived through far too much to just let a statement like that stand without question. We also were just told a day earlier BY THIS GUY that he’s happy to be here and now he’s gone? Asking “What the heck just happened?” is a normal, human response that you should be ready for.

Public relations practitioners learn early to plan out a strategy for the entire lifespan of a crisis, or at least as much of it as they can easily foresee. They won’t make a move without understanding how that move will lead to three other things happening down the road. They come loaded for bear with answers and explanations that they can anticipate needing to provide after receiving questions and concerns from their audiences. Only THEN do they make a statement publicly.

Speaking of which…

BE TRANSPARENT: My buddy, Pritch Pritchard, used to tell me how hard it was for him to get his PR students to understand the antithetical concept that says people trust you more if you tell them everything that is happening in a crisis situation. Pritch was in the Navy for 25 years and did public information, so he also noted he had similar problems explaining that to people above his rank and pay grade as well.

The goal of PR, he explained, should be transparency. The more you hide something, the worse it gets.

To explain this to my writing students, particularly those who were going into PR, I once played the Johnny Cash song, “A Boy Named Sue” for them. There’s a point in the song where part of it gets bleeped out:

We talked about all the things it could be and their imaginations ran toward the truly vulgar. As it was, what actually got bleeped out was the phrase “the S.O.B.” (A later version included the full version of that abbreviation.) They all seemed stunned that it could have been something that benign, which made my point that hiding (or bleeping) this thing only made the situation worse in the minds of the audience.

In bringing it back to PR and education, you will deal with a TON of concerns that parents have about what goes on at their kids’ schools, and rightly so. Those of us who are parents worry about what’s being taught, who the teachers are, what students are doing to each other, what rules are being violated, who might be bullying someone, if there’s vaping/sex/other terrifying stuff happening in the bathrooms and more. When someone up and leaves like this, our minds tend to wander to the most terrifying things that could be going on.

Not telling us anything gives our minds a chance to really kick into panic overdrive.

All we know is that Fox resigned. Did the board discover a dark secret about him or something he did and thus issue an ultimatum like this?


Or was Fox the good guy here? Was it Fox had a beef with a policy regarding masks and pulled out at the last minute? Was it a promise someone made to him that they reneged on and thus he did the only thing he could do? Did the board operate in bad faith, thus bringing into question its ability to hire the next-next principal?

Or was it something more personal? We’re in a pandemic, so everything is out of whack. Was it a family issue or a personal matter that he couldn’t deal with at the same time as being principal?

The mind can go in a dozen or more directions, but trust me when I say that literally 99.7% of the things that MIGHT have led to a resignation like this are far less problematic than the remaining one or two that jumped to the front of my mind immediately.

(And I’m not alone on this. I won’t repeat what I thought here, but when I laid this scenario out for a half dozen family members and friends, they each immediately jumped mentally to the same “EEEEWWWW” scenario that was in my mind. One response was great: “I’d CCAP the guy,” a friend said, turning our court record database search system into a verb. I had already done so. I found nothing there that would shed light on this situation. )

PR practitioners know that you want something like this dealt with quickly and in a way that restores the faith of the audience. This is where transparency serves the best interests of everyone involved. I understand there are rules and regulations, but transparency is crucial to keeping something like this from getting far, far worse in the minds of your constituents.

Which leads to the final point:

EMBRACE SYMBIOSIS: In the animal kingdom, symbiosis happens between different species that coexist in a way that can benefit each. The clownfish using the sea anemone for safety while the anemone receives nutrients from the waste of the fish is a good example. My personal favorite is the oxpecker and the rhinoceros:

In a case like the one involving the principal and the school district, a little symbiosis could go a long way in keeping both parties happy while reassuring parents of what happened here.

Sitting down together to plan out what they want to release, what they agree upon saying and how best to present this information to the public should be PR 101.

Fox has a legal right to say he doesn’t want the reason for his resignation to be released. That said, he might have been amenable to allowing the district to say certain things while avoiding other specifics in a press release to avoid any wild speculation. The district might be worried about what people would think if the administration said any more than the three lines in that press statement. That said, maybe getting permission to put a little more meat on the bone there would have helped the parents of the district be less fearful of what’s going on.

A symbiotic agreement on what can be said or how to best present what is clearly a weird outcome, couched in a series of odd moments, could benefit both sides, even as this relationship is clearly over. A good PR practitioner would find a way to arbitrate some sort of closure that would allow Fox the ability to exit in a “peace with honor” way while moving on to whatever he wants to do next, while simultaneously giving the district the ability to move forward in its next hire.

When it comes to public relations, it’s often about making everyone as marginally happy as possible. Good PR practitioners know that a truly quality solution benefits each player in the game. If only the practitioner’s client benefits, other stakeholders and member of the public can feel distrustful if they realize they’ve been duped. If the practitioner’s client doesn’t benefit, well… why is that client paying for this person’s services?

In many cases, practitioners serve as counselors, psychiatrists, arbitrators, surrogate parents and wise overseers for people who have become too involved in a situation to see the forest for the trees. It’s the practitioners’ ability to see what each move the client makes on the chessboard will result in six or seven moves later in the game that make these media professionals valuable.

At the very least, they can tell you what NOT to say that will only serve to make things worse, a maneuver that many educational institutions could really use help with.

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