Nipping the Rumormongers

by Tom Salter

As soon as I arrived at the school, it was clear it was going to be a bad day. I was serving as the public relations manager for our state’s largest school system with 65,000 students in 100 schools. On this morning I was called to duty at one of our more remote rural schools.

A parent who had removed his child from school the previous day because he was unhappy with the actions of a staff member had returned to the school and sprayed Mace in an empty hallway. The aerosol got into the air conditioning system and spread throughout the school. Dozens of students and teachers became ill. Some with asthma problems had severe reactions, though thankfully none were life threatening.

The parking lot was filled with fire trucks and ambulances. Paramedics were in the cafeteria tending to people who had become ill from the Mace. Several radio stations had made (more or less accurate) announcements about the event.

But as I stood in the front entrance talking to the news media, several mothers came running up in succession, all crying hysterically because they had gotten phone calls from friends who told them “a bomb has gone off at the school and all the children are dead.” Calming them was difficult.

Human Behavior
The incident led me to a startling realization: While many of us fear the media the most, it is the grapevine that is our albatross. Winston Churchill said, “When the eagles are silent, the parrots begin to jabber.” Human beings are curious and social. We interact and we talk to each other. And, in the absence of information, we make up stories and explanations so our world will make sense to us.

Rumors affect our entire society. We buy and sell stock on rumors. Unfortunately, since Sept. 11, our government has spent many valuable resources and raised and lowered terrorist alert levels based in part on “developing information.” Yet with all the time and effort it takes to combat a rumor after it becomes a perception, we spend too little time—as our old friend Barney Fife would say—“Nipping it in the bud!”

Most educational leaders have had at least one experience where rumors of a big gang fight or something similar prompted fear in the halls, angry phone calls from parents and aggressive media inquiries. No amount of reassurance will prevent the ensuing spike in absenteeism on the day of the rumored event.

If you wait until a rumor has spread before reacting to it, you are fighting a losing battle. People believe what they hear from friends and relatives. One piece of misinformation or a single half-truth can spread through a community in hours and take weeks, sometimes years, to debunk.

The only way to stop a rumor is to let the eagles scream. You must keep your employees, parents, students, community leaders and the public as a whole informed. If you rely solely on the media to keep people informed, you fail miserably.

Media Shortcomings
After almost 25 years as a communicator, 14 of those in the news media, I can tell you without hesitation that the media is a highly ineffective way to get your message out. Sure, we need the local press, but remember they don’t tell your story. They tell their version of your story. Most of the time they fall short of the mark. Even if they manage to get it right, not everyone will read the paper that day or tune in to that particular newscast.

Instead, you must communicate your message by getting in front of as many people as you can. Visit civic clubs, PTA/PTO meetings, gatherings of real estate agents and luncheons at senior centers. Face to face is always the best way to communicate. Then post information on your school district’s website and send it via e-mail and fax to the opinion leaders in your community, to your parents and to your administrators, faculty and staff. Don’t neglect bus drivers, food-service workers and custodians. Remember, your custodian may be a deacon in his local church and to his community he is the school district. If he believes the proposed tax increase only means the superintendent gets a new car, the people in his community will not support it.

While most educators panic when a negative school story appears on the front page, we barely notice when a school secretary whispers a half-truth. Keeping people informed is not easy. It takes time and resources, but repairing the damage caused by rumors takes much more.

Tom Salter is communication manager for the Alabama Department of Education, 50 Ripley St., Montgomery, AL 36104. E-mail: