Punchback: Answering Critics

Combating the Rumor Mill Through a Grapevine

by L. OLIVER ROBINSON

Chatter among parents on the sidelines of youth soccer games. Comments traded in the aisles of the grocery store.

People constantly share their opinions about the local schools. Unfortunately, many of their comments are half-truths or even flat-out inaccuracies. What goes on in our community is no different than what goes on in your community.

Oliver RobinsonL. Oliver Robinson



The problem is this: Misinformation and unfounded rumors about the schools tend to be considered more credible within the community, drowning out the official reports issued by the school district. The issues range from the inconsequential to the seriously detrimental. The rumor in our community about the supposed district policy to allow elementary and middle school students to purchase coffee got parents so worked up that some compiled medical research to march on the school board meeting in protest.

Speedy Spread
While Shenendehowa, a suburban school community near Albany, N.Y., is fairly large, rumors spread at lightning speed. Constantly hearing the chatter, I’m convinced people don’t always know what is factual, nor do they know who to contact for accurate information. Granted, our district has multiple methods of communication, including newsletters and a well-maintained website, yet the rumor mill dominates the communication stream.

So how do we best educate our community, making a complex organization of 10,000 students and 1,800 employees understandable to the typical layperson or even the most involved school district employee? Few community members realize how many decisions are based on board of education policy, federal laws and state regulations, and contractual obligations.

In 2008, partly out of frustration and partly out of professional obligation to communicate more effectively, the Shenendehowa district launched a web log called Heard It Through the Grapevine. This was an effort to provide people with a place to get answers to questions and to address rumors and wild claims that had no basis in fact.

In doing so, the Grapevine provided the ultimate feature — anonymity — so individuals could feel comfortable directly addressing the source without any concern about “asking a stupid question” and, even more critically, could do so without repercussions for expressing a dissenting point of view or for questioning the establishment.

The Grapevine is best described as a pseudo-blog, because it is not necessarily live and not all questions are published on the site and addressed. Questions submitted to the Grapevine go to the district’s public information officer, who determines which district administrator can best answer them. Then the appropriate responses are posted, typically within 24-48 hours.

When the site was launched, some staff members expressed concerns about staff and student privacy. They felt more comfortable when they realized not all questions are answered, and comments about specific employees may not be answered and, if they are, the staff member’s name is removed.

Personal Attacks
Of course, at times it is hard not to take some criticisms personally, particularly when someone questions without warrant the integrity of school personnel or makes statements that blatantly indict the judgment of a decision, often in a condescending or sarcastic way. So, as a practice, we try to keep our answers straightforward and objective, citing policies, laws or regulations when relevant. At times, we simply explain our decision and state we agree to disagree, but at least the questioner understands how or why a particular decision was made.

The public has become increasingly accustomed today to immediate communication. Consequently, it is important that the district explore every new technological tool that emerges to communicate with the public to ensure we are the first and best source of information.

Like Facebook and Twitter, two resources Shenendehowa is exploring, the Grapevine blog is another communication tool to help reach out and inform our community. The new social media allow people to inform us about what they want to know. We now have true two-way communication across the board.

Judging by the response, the Grapevine has been a huge success. It has reduced the number of calls the district gets from the media, as reporters can investigate a story from the “media tip line.” The district has the ability to be the first, best and fastest source of information to the public. Since its launching, the number of unique visitors to the Shenendehowa Central Schools’ website has increased from 10,000 to 38,000 per month. The Grapevine blog itself receives 15,000 visits per month, and we answer approximately 250 questions each month.

Now when staff members are asked to address a question posted on the blog, they announce they have been “grapevined!” Similarly, it is not uncommon to overhear someone in the grocery store checkout line say they “heard it through the Grapevine.” Accessible from our home page at www.shenet.org, the Grapevine last year received the National School Public Relations Association’s Golden Achievement Award.

Oliver Robinson is superintendent of Shenendehowa Central Schools in Clifton Park, N.Y. E-mail: robioliv@shenet.org