Punchback: Answering Critics

When Foes Attack, Silence Is Seldom Golden

by BRAD HUGHES

“To respond or not to respond, that is the question. Whether ’tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous critics, or to take up ‘arms’ in defense of one’s ideals.”

 

Long before Bill Shakespeare was crafting prose superior to these lines, a schoolmaster probably coined the phrase “Criticism goes with the job.” In those days, critics generally unloaded by barging into the schoolhouse and chewing out the principal. At least an administrator knew who said what and it was face to face.

Brad HughesBrad Hughes

Today, critics of school administrators may take their shots in an office, a school board meeting, a letter to the editor, a personal blog posting or an anonymous comment to an online news article. You can probably add to the list.

Administrators in the crosshairs have choices to make. Those choices often are just as important in the long run as how they move forward in their careers.

Take Superintendent John Dalton of Wayne County, Ky. Two years ago, Dalton was being disparaged on one of the growing formats for Internet commentary, Topix. It’s a self-described online “local news and discussion forum,” where everyone loves and respects everyone else.

“It flared up quite a bit, then without me doing anything, it burnt itself out,” Dalton said. “(But) if it had continued or if it became a constant distraction for our school, I would have responded to it, just not on Topix.”

Default Decision
Certainly, not every criticism merits a reaction beyond “delete” or a toss into the container under your desk. Yet too often leaders say, “Criticism just slides off my back,” when a longer view suggests potential harm from an unanswered charge. When a school administrator takes a shot professionally, regardless of the forum, it’s best to make a judgment call on whether to set the record straight.

Look at this year’s Washington, D.C., debate over the federal debt ceiling. Seldom did a late July day go by that someone wasn’t on Fox News or CNN or in some online reaction room, taking shots at President Obama or House Speaker John Boehner. No official, regardless of the staff resources of the White House or Congress, could respond to every cut and slash offered up by sources, whether on the record, anonymous, credible or crazy. Each leader picked the time — and the particular point — to respond.

Mounting criticisms have been labeled “smoking crises.” It may be too late to try to rebut attacks effectively if you’ve spent days or weeks just letting them build.

Crafting a Comeback
Once you’ve decided a response is appropriate, take time to make the content of the response equally appropriate. For example, ask yourself, “Is the critic unfair or merely uninformed?” You’ll probably use different words to refute the public disapproval of someone who doesn’t fully grasp the topic than someone who is playing with the facts.

Speaking of facts, carefully lay out the points you want the audience to take from your response. While rebutting the primary criticism is one goal, don’t lose an opportunity to enlighten readers or listeners by failing to include details — details that don’t just make your argument but also take the discussion in a desired direction.

One advantage in your favor is that you get to pick the format of your response. It may be you use the same forum as your critic did, but if you are a superintendent, you may decide the next school board meeting — often covered by local news media — is the most effective platform to make your case. It may be a letter to the editor, a staff memo, a series of face-to-face meetings or a message posted on the district website.

In all cases, avoid a counterattack to an ugly, personal statement that gives back with the same degree of viciousness. Devote your limited time, words and audience attention span to your message rather than calling your critics the gravy-sucking pigs they very well may be.

After the Rebuttal
The danger of a counter by the critic always exists, and you should steer clear of being drawn into a back-and-forth exchange, no matter how civil you are.

But it’s a good idea for an administrator to have an answer to the question “What’s next?”

If you’ve effectively disproved the critic but interest in the subject remains, an opportunity may be available to keep the conversation going. Ask some parents, colleagues, school board members or community leaders for their reaction. Demonstrate you want a solution that doesn’t just shut down a critic but fixes a problem, creates clarity of purpose and, most of all, resolves an issue to the benefit of your students.

The heat of critics indeed goes with the territory. Those who blow off criticism too often may find themselves wilted by the intensity that builds over time. Those who make their case in the right way, time and place can create their own support base for more than the current issue of debate.

Brad Hughes is director of communications services for the Kentucky School Boards Association in Frankfort, Ky. E-mail: bhughes@mail.state.ky.us