Editorial: Some PR advice for school district, city

With both the city and school district hiring 'communication specialists,' can the public expect more transparency or simply better PR?

There are two ways of looking at almost simultaneous decisions by Palo Alto City Manager Jim Keene and school district Superintendent Kevin Skelly to hire senior-level help with communications and public outreach.

On the one hand, there is more than ample evidence that both the city and school district are struggling with transparency and with developing effective strategies for engaging the public on controversial issues. Good for them if they are acting with these motivations.

On the other hand, delegating "communications" to a staff person can be a futile, unproductive exercise and a waste of money if policymakers aren't already committed to transparency, honest communications and public outreach. We aren't convinced of that commitment.

It does the community no good to have a city or school staff person with the job of trying to make sure the public sees only what the public agency wants it to see about its operations. Effective communications professionals view their job as being strong advocates for full disclosure and transparency, not as experts in shaping the message to make their employers look good.

The challenge and need could not be better illustrated by events of the last week in the Palo Alto Unified School District, which faced three significant news stories and was not prepared to address any of them, in spite of each being known internally for weeks and intentionally kept from the public.

First, there was the filing of a formal claim by the family of a disabled former Terman Middle School special-education student who was bullied and harassed for years and which led to findings by the Office for Civil Rights that the district failed to properly address the problem. The claim was filed with the district on June 21, yet the district made no announcement nor was ready with any comment when asked by the media two weeks later, when the family released the document to the Weekly.

Next was the revelation that contrary to all public indications, the school board and its attorneys are discussing in closed sessions how it might challenge the federal government's legal authority to conduct investigations or impose policies on the district. One such discussion took place on June 11, and the only reason the public is aware of it is that the district inadvertently put "confidential" emails on its website. When asked for comment, instead of explaining to the public why this strategy was under consideration, the reaction was to ask that the emails be destroyed or returned and that they not be read or used.

Finally, news surfaced of a sixth civil-rights investigation, this time over how the district has complied with Title IX and its response to alleged peer sexual harassment among Palo Alto High School students relating to rumored off-campus sexual assaults. The notice from the Office for Civil Rights was received by the district on June 6 but was kept under wraps from the public until the federal agency released it to the Weekly in response to a routine request for information. When asked for comment, Superintendent Skelly requested that no story be published in order to protect the privacy of those involved, even though the investigation is a broad inquiry into district compliance, not in response to an individual complaint or case, and no personal information is contained in the notice from the Office for Civil Rights.

These examples illustrate why decisions on whether or not to release information proactively are so important.

Unfortunately, too many public agencies operate in the false belief that they can successfully pursue a strategy of selective disclosure of information. Of course, we'll never know how often that secrecy has succeeded, but we do know how often it fails. And any smart public administrator or elected official should assume that what they are doing will eventually see the light of day in a community with active citizens and competent local journalists.

As city Chief Information Officer Claudia Keith and school Communications Coordinator Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley settle into their new positions, we urge them to study the philosophy and practices of the late Bob Beyers, the head of the Stanford University News Service for 29 years until 1990.

Beyers set the gold standard for how an institution's communications officer should operate. His mantra was "Candor pays. Maybe not in the short term, but always in the long term." When Beyers died in 2002, former Stanford President Richard Lyman said: "Beyers never saw himself as engaged in public relations, always as a journalist. He lived by the highest standards of that profession: unflagging energy, total integrity, insatiable curiosity and unsparing candor."

Perhaps the most useful observation under current circumstances is the approach Beyers took to "bad" news, as related by Spyros Andreopoulos, his long-time friend and colleague, in a tribute published in the Weekly after Beyers' death:

"He believed the best way to handle bad news was to tell the truth. Bob was the inventor of the pre-emptive press release. If something bad was going to happen, Bob put out a full news release before the press found out. His theory was that in getting the story out first you defused it, and spared yourself from having to explain later not only what happened but also why it was covered up. Potential scandals that could cling around in the media for weeks or months would go away in a few days."

There are many more challenges than how to handle bad news or news that is destined to result in controversy. But given the many occasions over the last year when following this advice would have helped the school district or the city, it's not a bad place to start.

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Like this comment
Posted by That would be nice
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 12, 2013 at 9:38 am

I hope no one criticizes the Weekly for suggesting that PAUSD be more candid. Kevin Skelly is all about cheerleading and always tries to minimize incidents by comparing them to the thousands of incidents that did not occur. I agree that PAUSD should be more honest and open. The new PR director will take $150,000 of our money to manipulate us into staying on message, whichever message, excuse, or apology that the board or Skelly is sending out.

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 12, 2013 at 10:52 am

another great editorial by the weekly!!!! keep up the good work and great reporting
by journalists like Sheyner and Dremann; it is a true service to the community!

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on Jul 12, 2013 at 11:31 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

The laudable standard set by Bob Byers will never be met by any public agency until and unless its elected officials commit themselves to honesty and transparency.

Like this comment
Posted by School_Bored
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 12, 2013 at 12:42 pm

The endless shenanigans by Skelly and the Board are reprehensible and arrogant. Do they realize how bad they look with all these attempts at covering up utterly stupid actions?

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 12, 2013 at 1:10 pm

I have no idea about the facts of the matter, but our School Board and Superintendent are not required to get on their knees, and get their teeth kicked in by the Feds...just to play the PR/PC game. They should be expected to push back, if they feel the Feds are wrong. It's the American way.

Like this comment
Posted by Skelly's Way
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jul 12, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Skelly's way of minimalizing and trivializing bullying, fighting, and harassment is NOT the proper or legal way to handle these situations. It neither resolves them nor makes them go away, but allows them to continue and worsen, unchecked. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by wikileaks
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm

Yes, how dare Skelly be considerate and deal with these cases on an individual basis and in private. Any complaints about bullying to the district must be made public immediately with full names, addresses and details of what happened. That is all that will sate the irrational appetite for gossip that has besieged the district. Well done Weekly, you've scored.

Like this comment
Posted by ML
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 12, 2013 at 3:59 pm

@Peter Carpenter

How interesting! As I read this Editorial, and before I came accross your comment, I was remembering my friend Bob Beyers (who was director of Stanford News Service for more than 25 years.

When in the face of controversial issues, his strategy was to call for a press conference to inform the media about it. "Because when you try to cover up" his logic went, "you will end up with two problems: the original problem; and the problem you created by the attempt to conceal information that eventually will come up."

His wise technique always worked.
Maybe there is still time for PAUSD Board to correct the course, and stop creating more problems for themselves and the district.

Like this comment
Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 12, 2013 at 4:05 pm

The title f this editorial n the print edition is
" our unsolicited PR advice"
Why change the title? Pressure? Just curious

Like this comment
Posted by Not An issue
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 12, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Well they changed the title here again, but, it is still different than the print edition. Why?
If they canot get the title straight..

Like this comment
Posted by VoxPop
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 12, 2013 at 5:25 pm

@Not: What difference does it make?

Like this comment
Posted by Skelly's Way
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Jul 12, 2013 at 5:57 pm

Yeah, it really IS not an issue!

Like this comment
Posted by That would be nice
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 12, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Yes, this is all the Weekly's fault.

Like this comment
Posted by Not an issue
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 12, 2013 at 8:43 pm

VoxPop and skellys way-- it has to do with journalistic integrity and getting the facts right.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 13, 2013 at 7:39 am

What is “transparency”? Here’s a “bare-bones” idea of what “transparency” is from the point-of-view of information that a school district might possess:

Framework For Creating Information “Transparency”

All (Non-Confidential) Data/Information On-line
--(Inventory of all Information/Data Needed)
---All Financials On-line
--+--Published Budget Documents
--+--Published Comprehensive Financial Reports
--All Physical Assets Identified/Mapped
--Org Charts On-line, Current and Archived.
--All Datasets Submitted to County/State
--All Academic Performance Data
--+--Student Grades
--All Books/Texts/Readers, etc.
--All Public Requests For Information
--+--Requests Posted For Public Review
--+--Responses Posted For Public Review

Supporting access to this data—

--All Data/Info Fully Indexed
--Table-of-Contents Available
--+--Contact Names/Email Addrs For Various Departments
--+--Links to FAQs Available
--On-line Help
--VideoChat/IM Contact (during business hours)
--Email Addrs of Key Staff
--Printable FAQs
--Data/Information Retention Schedule Required
--All Incoming Email Traffic to BoT (redacted where necessary) Posted.

If all of this information, at a minimum, were on-line, in a timely fashion, then the public would have access to much of what it needs to evaluate/monitor agency activities. The amount of time the District would have to spend responding to individual requests would be much smaller—offset somewhat by an increased amount of work by the agency’s IT department to get/keep this information on-line.

Right now, it’s hard to believe that either of the two highly paid PIOs will be working to define “transparency” for their individual agencies, or will have the skills to begin to construct such a framework, suggested above, to provide the public access to their agencies information/data.

Telling the truth is one thing—but doing what needs to be done is another.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly parent,
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 13, 2013 at 8:23 am

Very constructive suggestion Wayne. Question: Are there any other school districts or cities in California who are already practicing this type of online transparency (which makes a lot of sense in this digital age)? If so, our community might want to take a look at how they do it, and find out how well that kind of system works. It could really save everyone a lot of time, and help with accountability and trust issues. Thanks for bringing it up. If anyone out there has ideas about possible models other districts or cities are using, please mention them in this thread, as a way to start exploring system improvements.

Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 13, 2013 at 8:44 am

> Are there any other school districts or cities in California

A fair question. Given that there are about 1100 school districts in CA--it's hard to keep track of very many of them. So, I don't know. From reviewing the web-sites of various city governments, there has been an effort to define "e-government" by some, but each agency seems things from a local point-of-view, and so few have actually moved very far in establishing service delivery models that can be effectively reviewed for fundamentals, such as "transparency", or access to information content.

To be fair, this is really a new field for governments, since the vast store of information in the past made any effective "transparency" not really very possible. However, with the revelations of the spying on the people's of the world by our National Security establishment, it's clear that some levels of government have an idea how to use the current IT technology effectively.

It's my belief that local school districts should merge their IT functions, so that the work, and cost, of shifting to this service delivery model can be reduced. It really is a fairly "hefty" task to expect every school district (or City government) to attempt this shift on its own.

Like this comment
Posted by umm..
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 13, 2013 at 9:00 am

All great ideas, Wayne. Unfortunately Skelly is more likely to install shredders than web servers.

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Posted by Paco
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 13, 2013 at 4:33 pm

Keene's hiring of 40+ new senior and middle management positions for each and every micro-management task only attempts to shield his inabilities and lack of leadership skills. Keene's incompetent management skills are now costing city residents triple digit management salary and benefits costs that are unsustainable. Keene's multi-million dollar experiment in management micro-management is almost laughable, if it were not for the incredible ballooning and skyrocketing costs to city residents. Keene's shadow organization of management yes men is a disgrace and a slap in the face to city taxpayers! What a pity!

Like this comment
Posted by Paul Seaver
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 14, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I very much appreciated the comments about Bob Beyers. Those of us old enough to remember his reporting at Stanford during the troubled '60s and '70s can vouch for his ability to present the unvarnished truth about what was going on and to do it without ever expressing his own opinion. Even his expression never gave him away. A remarkable man!

Like this comment
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm

A city our size needs TWO "Communications Specialists"? Something is very wrong with this picture.

Like this comment
Posted by Sad Sak
a resident of Professorville
on Jul 18, 2013 at 11:48 am

Get rid of Skelly. Clear out the school board- no more incumbents. The district is WASTING money because they are unable to perform as professionals. Disgraceful, dishonest and bumbling.

Like this comment
Posted by just recalling
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 30, 2014 at 10:02 am

The story about Beyers is a great one. "...He believed the best way to handle bad news was to tell the truth...."

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of St. Claire Gardens

on May 31, 2017 at 1:38 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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