Friday, January 8, 2010

How thick is your PR skin?

European HornetImage by ricardo.martins via Flickr
Inclement winter weather happens. That's pretty much a given. What isn't always a given is what school districts will do when winter weather threatens to sting them.

The short-version: Our area experienced record low temperatures resulting in slight accumulation of ice in areas around the district. We opened schools at regular time. Many parents and students took longer times to get to school. Parents (and some students) expressed displeasure in the decision to remain open. They chose to share their displeasure via angry phone calls, on our Facebook fan page and through comments on our blog.

Winter Weather Catch-22
There are many things that go into the decision to open, close or delay a school district day because of weather concerns. I'm not going to go into any details on those types of procedures and considerations since they will vary by district.  The bottom-line is these are no-win situations because no matter what you choose to do, you run the risk of upsetting your community.

What should a school PR person do when a significant number of your community disagrees with your decision and is willing to share their displeasure?
Here is just a sampling of some of the posts and comments we received.
We had some thoughtful posts: There are patches of ice and accidents in Mansfield. Schools should have at least been delayed. Be careful!
Harsh: Its nice to know the district cares so much about state funds and so little about the safety of children that they are keeping schools open!

Angry: this is unacceptable!
i think that my child should not have to go to school when weather coditions are this bad!!!
its hazardous!!!!!!!
i hate this isd!!!!!!!!!

Funny: This is not fair my friends in other citys get the day off but I do not!!! :(
(I am guessing this was from a student or perhaps a staff member.)

Argumentative: I was amazed to see that our garbage pickup was delayed 2 hours, but the start of school was not.

The silver-lined Hornets Nest
It seemed we had stirred the hornets nest with this one. But here's the kicker, since we had provided places for this feedback through our social media channels, we were able to hear them. We were able to appropriately respond when needed. Since we had people's attention, we were able to deliver messages on a couple of other topics. It was enough to be able to listen in on the buzz of issues and concerns that parents were openly sharing. We were even challenged to think and address some issues that had been basically invisible to us and respond quicker.

It wasn't always comfortable to read, and sometimes bordered on blood-pressure raising. But, the significance of letting those in the community engaged with the district on the social web vent on our communication channels is, I believe, a positive step.

We even had a few posts that seemed to be fed up with those railing against the district and share their thoughts too:
...As adults, our children will be expected to arrive at work on days such as today, even if they arrive late. Accidents do happen during bad weather but blaming the schools for that is unfair. I wonder how many people complaining about the trek to school also made trips to Walmart today...
Communication Carry-out: You can choose to let those angry words sting you or you can choose to grow a thicker skin. I recommend the latter in cases like these for school PR people so you can hear what's being said. What do you think?
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