Managing Public Scrutiny

Jan. 1, 2000
The way that school administrators respond to the public and the media can make all the difference in promoting positive relations with the community.

When students sit among buckets of water due to a leaky roof in their classroom, you can bet parents and teachers aren't going to be happy about it. Nor will they be any happier to see school maintenance vehicles parked at a coffee shop. Is either item "no big deal" or "big news?" Will a disgruntled parent call the principal, facility manager or, in frustration call the local media?

Many items can draw negative attention to schools, and specifically to facility-maintenance issues. This especially is a reality in urban school districts with a large maintenance force, where trucks are numerous and easily recognizable. This, along with large numbers of customers that receive services every day, makes public scrutiny routine.

Therefore, the physical condition of public buildings can become an easy and obvious target, as well as a catharsis for anyone unhappy with the district in general. The condition of facilities or, worse, repair delays that may mean school has to close for a day, are sure to get attention. And what the public is interested in also is sure to interest the local media. How facility managers react and their level of preparation can make even a negative inquiry have positive results.

Dealing with the Media Experience demonstrates three general rules of thumb when dealing with inquiries from the public and media.

-Respond truthfully.

-Keep your public-information office informed of your operations.

-Have faith in your employees.

"While a negative report may initially appear to be a problem, it's been my experience that once the whole story is known, things are not nearly as they may have first appeared," says Bill Koelm, executive director for facilities for the Albuquerque Public Schools (APS), N.M. "Most callers are acting on little information, and the call can often end up being an opportunity to explain to them not only when and how the problem is going to be corrected, but what efforts are being made to correct future instances from occurring."

At a public relations workshop held in Albuquerque and hosted by the New Mexico Coalition of School Administrators and the Zia Chapter of National School Public Relations Association, local reporters answered the questions of Public Information Officers (PIO's) from school districts across the state.

"Reporters ignore good stories such as bake sales not because they are positive and don't sell papers, but because they are typically not news," says Matthew Franck, staff reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. "Don't make it appear we can walk freely onto campus for spelling bees, but not amid controversy and crime."

School districts often are too sensitive to the media and overestimate their power. One suggestion is that when speaking to the media, administrators should not take inquiries as a personal attack on their work. The positive of a district will withstand the negative.

Making Good News So what can districts do to make good stories "news," and inform the public why it should care? For one, at bond-issue time, public impressions can become critically important. If the public believes its facilities are being well-built and well-maintained, this is bound to have a positive effect on the vote. An ongoing aggressive approach to informing the media throughout the year, not just at election time, should be considered.

Media representatives say that news releases and follow-up phone calls are the most effective way to get their attention. However, be prepared to explain why a story is relevant or how it ties into national trends.

To a facility manager this may mean if you have taken heat in the past from the press for your leaking roofs, but have begun an innovative new roofing program, such information could be released as a news story. However, you also may have to discuss the impact of the program on local roofing contractors or how decisions in the past resulted in the problems you are addressing now. The advantage of this approach is that by initiating the story a facility manager can "drive the slant," while being fully prepared to answer questions.

The Albuquerque Public School's (APS) Facilities and Support Operations Department, N.M., has had its share of media attention. With 300 maintenance workers, more than 11 million square feet of facilities, and an operating budget of $40 million, such scrutiny by the public and media is unavoidable.

Bill Koelm, executive director for facilities, says his office typically receives up to 30 calls a year from citizens to report either on the condition of a building or on the activities of a particular worker. In addition, he gets an inquiry at least once a month from a member of the media.

In one case, a television reporter spent several weeks investigating the facility department. Using the New Mexico public records act, the reporter examined boxes of overtime records, work-order information and contracts. The only negative information in the resulting story consisted of a video, taped surreptitiously, of three maintenance workers stopping for an unauthorized coffee break.

Koelm says he dealt with the reporter almost daily over a three-month period. He provided what the reporter requested, had staff available to answer questions, and kept the district's public information officer involved during all contacts. The final story contained no surprises for the district, and officials felt prepared to respond to any possible backlash.

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