Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Four PR tactics I hope you never have to use

Working in a public school district presents a variety of communication challenges, both good and bad. Most of them occur during the school year and mostly involve explaining administrative, student, financial, or facility situations and decisions.

Unfortunately, for our district, a recent challenge involved the death of the newly retired superintendent and it happened over the summer.

Losing a high-profile community leader
The Mansfield ISD community was shocked to learn last week of the tragic accident that took the life of the district's former superintendent, Mr. Vernon Newsom. Newsom, who retired June 30 from the District, died from injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident while on his first post-retirement vacation in South Dakota with his wife.

As a way for me to process my grief, I wanted to take an opportunity to share the reinforced or learned tactics from this somber communications experience: 
  1. Use an online press release as a resource page on the deceased to be updated as often as needed - In the first hours after learning of the accident and making basic information available to staff, we went into information-gathering mode and worked to prepare a press release. As new information became available such as funeral services and memorial opportunities, they were added to the page so our media friends could update their stories and the community could keep up with the situation. We had our current superintendent available for media interviews, provided copies of Mr. Newsom's biography as well as digital photos on cd and on the page. (If you provide photos, make sure they are high-resolution.) [related tweet]

  2. Turn a blog post into a memorial tribute forum - Our current superintendent (who incidently had been on the job officially for 22 days when the accident occurred) sat in my office and dictated a blog post that included an invitation for readers to comment with their thoughts and memories of our former leader. This turned out to be a very useful tool. The memorial post became the place where people could actually do something while we waited on final decisions for services. I think the post provided a much needed outlet to share what they were thinking and feeling. It was heart-warming to see so many people contribute comments. As of this writing, we've had 76 comments on the post. [related tweet]

  3. Be prepared to run a live video stream of funeral services - On the morning of the funeral, our communications department was charged with the request from the family to see what it would take to provide a live video feed from the funeral service. Thanks to the skills and quick work by our multimedia specialist and a co-worker from the technology department, we were able to provide live video using a hastily setup ustream channel. I don't recommend trying to set something like this up on the fly without properly testing it. I am very thankful it worked for us so an additional 350 people were able see the service. [related tweet]

  4. Set up a single pool shooter to cover the funeral for media -We have some great media friends in the Dallas/Ft. Worth market. One of them is Giles Hudson (assignment editor for the local CBS affiliate) who worked with me and agreed to provide a pool shooter for the funeral. What that meant for us is that we only had to have one news station's camera in the church instead of the four or five that it would have taken for all of major news stations to cover this high-profile funeral. [my related tweet]
Final thoughts
Our communications department is blessed with a great amount of latitude and administrative support, so the tactics didn't have to be sold to anyone.

We were very open about the situation from the beginning with our community using as many different communication channels as possible. I think this openness contributed to the positive response and out-pouring of suppport for the district. Over 1,200 people attended the funeral services and I think having a limited disturbance by the media was well-appreciated. Every journalist I spoke with about the situation gave their condolences and a few even had difficulty holding back their own tears. It's ok to be human.

Going through the different stages of this horrible chapter in our district's history has been a good reminder that through it all, no matter what your profession, life is precious.

Did I forget anything? What would you add to the short list of tactics? The comments are yours.