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.