Spotlight

‘They’re Killing Me in the Blogosphere’

by SYLVIA SOHOLT AND EVAN PITKOFF

Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” And that was before the Internet!

Many superintendents are discovering how quickly they can be defamed today on blogs. More often than not these attacks are anonymous and occur when a superintendent is simply doing his or her job and someone doesn’t like it.


Pitkoff SoholtEvan Pitkoff and Sylvia Soholt

When a superintendent suspended a popular teacher for alleged embezzlement, the local blogs had a feeding frenzy at his expense while he followed the mandate of confidentiality during the police investigation and teacher termination proceedings. The outcry from the public who read the anonymous blogs nearly brought board of education meetings to a standstill. The attacks lasted for months — until the police report was made public, fully justifying the teacher’s dismissal.

Negative bloggers effectively create havoc for superintendents, school boards and school systems by using four S’s in their toolbox:

•  Slime: they create false accusations and innuendo;

•  Speed: they can post negative text faster than you can spell “instantaneous”;

•  Secrecy: they are often anonymous; and

•  Security: they have little or no fear of retribution due to the anonymity of the Internet.

Respond or Not?
An old notion in politics says, “An attack unanswered is an attack believed.” On the other hand, sometimes responding to an attack ignites a fire that would have smoldered if left alone. Furthermore, responding can be seen as stooping to the level of the attacker.

To assess whether to respond, first determine the credibility of the blog, whether it is generating a large, responsive audience and the likelihood it will persuade its readers. You can wait and see how it plays out if you have a deep reservoir of credibility and trust from your community, but you must have a communication system in place that can be activated if the attacks become destructive.

It’s important to match your usual communication approach to your response. If your community never hears from you until someone raises a ruckus, your response will be suspect. The response you make depends upon one of three approaches to communication already in place. 

•  Level I: Informing, or “Tell and Sell.” This involves a one-way flow of communication using news media releases, newsletters and cable broadcasts.

•  Level II: Involving by listening. Communication starts with efforts to learn from the public rather than selling to the public.

•  Level III: Engaging via participation. Communication includes many person-to-person opportunities because community members are actively involved in the life of the school district.

Matching Tactics
Strategies match each of these levels. They include:

•  Defense (Level I). Use existing one-way channels such as print publications, broadcast and cable media, and the web. Provide links to additional information. Respond rapidly to inaccurate information. Repeat your message often.

•  Sue the blogger (Level I). Determine the source through a request to the Internet host. Be certain you have grounds for a lawsuit. Prepare for media attention. Expect to be positioned as Goliath, not David.

•  Reconnaissance (Level II). Ask your key communicators what they know or can find out. Use your own website or blog to present your position and invite comment. If the blogger is not anonymous, reach out to learn about his or her perspective.

•  Spread the offense (Level III). People rely on the advice of friends, neighbors and people they trust when evaluating what they read and hear. Identify others who can spread your information to the community. PTA members can be effective messengers, but so can clergy, hairstylists and auto mechanics. Encourage word of mouth and letters to the editor.

•  Aikido (Level III). This is based on the martial art performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head on. It involves acting from a position of strength to see how things play out. Your response should be limited to setting the record straight. Truth is the best defense. Be right, and be able to prove it.

Pro-active Measures
Count on being attacked. Blog attacks on superintendents and school districts are no longer an anomaly.

Taking these steps can help you prevent negative blogs from disrupting your district or your equilibrium. 

•  Determine the credibility of the blog. This can be done by reviewing the blog’s appearance, content and names, if any. Keep a count of the responses it generates.

Use sites such as www.blogpulse.com to see whether the blog comes up in other searches.

•  Track postings by signing up for alerts. One option: www.google.com/alerts. You can decide how often you want to get updates and will learn when your district shows up in a new entry.

•  Send information regularly through your key communicators.

•  Develop your own blog and use it to post a statement.

•  Activate your crisis plan.

•  Communicate, communicate, communicate! Communicate good news and bad news. Use feedback loops to develop and improve your services. Build strong relationships with your stakeholders so they trust your communications — and your silence.

These practices work to increase the positive regard of your community as well as repair a wounded reputation.

Sylvia Soholt is senior project director at KSA-Plus Communications in Seattle, Wash. E-mail: Sylvia@ksaplus.com. Evan Pitkoff is executive director of Cooperative Educational Services in Trumbull, Conn.