Friday, June 1, 2012

Getting the best PR outcome from a student protest

Oh what a difference a year makes. One year ago my school district had a lively (and ultimately positive) PR issue at end to the school year: a high school student protest at the administration building.

From our official statement:
On Friday, June 3, approximately 100 students from Timberview High School held a peaceful demonstration at the Mansfield ISD administration building voicing their concerns over the decision to transfer a staff member from their campus to another school within the District.

The Timberview staff member received notice of an administrative transfer to a middle school in MISD as a teacher and coach starting in the 2011-12 school year. To date, this individual is one of 75 Mansfield ISD employees who received such administrative transfers in our continuing efforts to save jobs in the District. (While other districts were cutting staff and eliminating positions, the Mansfield ISD administration and board committed to avoid personnel and student program cuts during the state of Texas' education budget uncertainty.)

The important thing to note is that in this situation is we were not surprised by the demonstration. The students tipped their hand through word of mouth and social media. The rumor-mill revved up during the last week of school about the students being upset that one of the teachers was being moved/fired/replaced/sent away/etc. (You know, the way the rumor-mill works, they only had a portion of the truth.)

Thankfully, I got wind of it pretty early because we aggressively monitor traditional media and social media for mentions, problems, topics related to the District and campuses. It wasn't long before the students took to Twitter and Facebook to rally support and organize the demonstration. Using Twitter search and a Boolean search string with hastags, campus name, the teacher's name and the 'OR' operator, I had a pretty good handle (and free look) into the conversation on that channel. The students also set up a Facebook Page to save the coach and pretty much left it wide open for anyone to see. This was good because we could observe as well.

When the conversation moved to an actual organized protest for the last day of school, we were not taken by surprise and were able to anticipate their movements. Originally, they wanted to demonstrate at the high school, which was a bad idea because in addition to it being the last day of school it was also a finals day. Naturally, the concern here was a disruption in the academic process particularly for those students not involved or interested in this particular demonstration. But things changed.

What happened next? Since we were monitoring the conversation, we followed the news that the students decided against rallying at the high school and instead were going to gather and demonstrate at the District administration building. Great. Again, this was the last day of school but this was a better situation for us since we could contain things away from students taking finals.

As luck would have it, that same morning I was finishing up with an interview at another campus about a great story of teen from the district who had published her first novel when I got the first call from a local radio station about the high school student demonstration.

The radio station told me they had heard there were "300 students gathered at the stadium" to protest. Since we had anticipated the students' moves and had confirmation from District police, I was able to give her the actual numbers (approximately 50 kids at the time) and an updated location of our administrative complex. I told her to have the reporter meet me in the parking lot and we'd go from there.

And thus started the media relations side to this story.

As members of the local media began to arrive and get their b-roll of the students marching then coming over to get some interviews I took an opportunity to show a little strategic support for the students. I had our student nutrition department deliver cases of bottled water so we could distribute among the students during what was quickly becoming a hot Texas day. Ideally, I wanted the media footage to include us passing out the water. Yes, this was done on purpose from a strategic viewing benefit as well as simply being a case of us still being responsible for the students during a school day.

The media interviews went fine. Most of the articles and stories that aired were balanced and we were able to share the key messages that this was all a part of our District's job-saving measures during a time of state education budget cuts. In general, I still consider this a positive experience also because the students did a good job of staying focused and took the demonstration seriously instead of using it to act unruly, disrespectful, or cause problems for traffic or the general community. These were good kids, they didn't have a perspective beyond what they thought they knew. It was actually refreshing to observe an organized student protest for something they believe in even though we had to deal with the media fall-out from it and took a bit of a short-term bruising.

I've used this case study a few times over the past year, but figured it was time to put it down in a post so hopefully other school PR pros or administrators can benefit from some of the steps we took. Simply put, school districts must monitor the online conversations and when topics or issues arise, be ready to take action. Traditional media and social media monitoring are must-haves in a school PR pro's arsenal from an early-warning device to a part of the measurement practices.

I'll leave you with one of the local media stories on the protest: