When It Comes to School Districts, How Public Is Public Relations?
Records obtained in Darien, Connecticut showed dozens of emails during a public relations crisis for the school district.
School spokespeople often help a district in crisis. But they can also obscure facts just to avoid legal risk, and make it harder to sort out truth from spin, possibly interfering with the public's right to know.
In Darien, Connecticut, the school district paid a communications professional around $50,000 to handle press releases for about a year starting in 2013, as the district dealt with a special education crisis. The problem grew, and eventually led to the resignation of the superintendent, a principal, and others.
Records obtained after a two-year legal fight showed dozens of emails exchanged among the school board, administrators, lawyers, and a public relations consultant, who tried to handle reaction from parents and the media. The consultant involved was former television reporter Duby McDowell, a partner at McDowell Jewett Communications.
The district fought efforts to obtain records related to McDowell’s work, claiming her work was exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act because she was hired through the district’s law firm, Shipman and Goodwin. The firm argued that McDowell’s services were “inextricably intertwined in the provision of legal advice.”
But the Freedom of Information Commission disagreed. Its hearing officer, Tracey Brown, wrote that McDowell “provided standard public relations advice” which appeared to be “routine suggestions from a public relations firm as to how to put the ‘spin’ most favorable” to Darien.
Andrew Feinstein, a lawyer who represented the parents during the ordeal, said it’s unclear what Darien got for its money. “Darien spent a tremendous amount of money and got very little for it,” he said.
McDowell declined to comment.
Below is a section from the FOI documents covering McDowell's work, where she discussed how to respond to press about her job with the district:
Kim Eves in Greenwich is working to bring communication professionals to more Connecticut school districts.
Karen Kleinz, associate director of the Maryland-based National School Public Relations Association, said professionals can be helpful in crisis situations. They deal with parent inquiries and Freedom of Information Act requests; liaise between a district, state, and federal authorities; handle internal memos and newsletters; and maintain a public online presence.
The NSPRA has a seven-figure annual budget and over 1,500 members, which includes communication consultants, public relations firms, marketing professionals, superintendents, administrators, and school spokespeople.
The Connecticut chapter has 19 members. Kim Eves, a spokesman for Greenwich Public Schools, is that chapter’s president.
“That phrase ‘spin’ is one of my pet peeves,” Eves said. “The level of communication demand today has increased so much, I’m really surprised that more districts don’t have a dedicated person” for the job, she said.
Eves is working to bring communication professionals to more Connecticut districts.
“What we’re trying to do now, is establish who are the people out there that have this responsibility,” Eves said, “and is there a need for professional learning, for support, for networking, for sharing best practices.”
Below is another example of McDowell's work in Darien, where she discussed how the district should respond should a top special education administrator resign (she eventually resigned, but months after this email):
Some find it difficult to justify spending education money on public relations.
When there’s trouble getting information, it’s usually because there’s pressure from management on spokespeople to not reveal certain details, according to Mitchell Pearlman, a law and journalism professor at UConn and a former executive director of the Freedom of Information Commission.
“I don’t think [spokespeople] are good or bad,” Pearlman said. “I’ve seen really good communications specialists who maximize quick access to information, and I’ve seen ones that have just tried to fight it because that’s what their bosses want.”
Others find it difficult to justify spending any education money on public relations.
James H. Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a former newspaper editor, said public relations work has no place in a school.
“Public schools have all sorts of spokesmen,” he said. “I always prefer to put the limited money that education districts have into teachers and education, and not into professional obfuscators."
Of the 19 Connecticut-based members of the school public relations group, two are superintendents.
Salvatore Menzo, superintendent in Wallingford, joined about four years ago to help communicate a new method for teaching and learning.
“We all have so many things to do in our daily lives as superintendents,” he said. “As change continues to occur so rapidly, the message that we send every time there’s a change is actually more important than the change itself.”
Menzo pointed to the rollout of the Common Core State Standards five years ago. Communication problems surrounding the rollout, and what the Common Core actually is, set the stage for a controversy that’s still playing out today.
However, there are significant legal issues surrounding the disclosure of some education information. In Connecticut, any data set that includes fewer than six students is not disclosed in order to protect student privacy. Personnel matters are also generally kept private.
This can make it difficult for school spokespeople to comply with some requests, Pearlman said. According to state records, school districts violate the Freedom of Information Act more than any other public body. Pearlman suggested this happens because schools are concerned about legal implications if they divulge too much information.
Below is McDowell listing talking points for Darien to consider after the State Department of Education found the district broke federal special education law:
Professional communicators also help schools with marketing campaigns. Schools sometimes compete with each other for students, and public relations professionals can help a school stand out from the competition. Magnet schools, charters, and neighborhood schools have spent millions of dollars marketing to communities in hopes to spark parent interest.
Many districts have also begun to implement “brand journalism,” a marketing technique where an organization creates news-like stories for public consumption. In an era of scarce resources, critics like Smith contend that there’s too much hype and not enough substance.