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A Matter of Strategy: Keeping the Public Informed on Violence

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The image of today's public schools as violence-ridden creates a big challenge for public-relations professionals, top communications specialists from two urban districts say.

It is policy in the Pittsburgh district to report violent incidents in the schools to the local news media--even at the risk of contributing to the community's fears about school safety.

Pat Crawford, the district's director of public affairs, said during a session here at the annual meeting of the National School Public Relations Association that Pittsburgh officials believe that the news about violent incidents will seep out to reporters anyway, so the district benefits from making the disclosure itself.

"We take the initiative with events that we know are going to hit the paper come hell or high water," she said during a session called "Battling School Violence: The Ultimate P.R. Challenge."

When an incident occurs, the district's public-affairs office sends a statement by fax machine to school board members and the news media containing details about the incident and explaining what steps administrators are taking.

On minor incidents, the fax will "stand by itself," Ms. Crawford said. One recent example is a student fight in which one student was sent to a hospital.

In more serious incidents, district officials are available for interviews or will hold a news conference, Ms. Crawford said.

Janice Crawford (no relation to Pat Crawford), the director of public information for the Memphis school district, said that principals there must undergo four-hour training sessions in dealing with the media as part of a larger school-safety training program.

Many of the principals complain, she said, because they believe they already are adept at dealing with reporters. For that reason, the principals are videotaped giving mock interviews.

"Some revealed confidential student information that they should not have," she said. "One principal said, 'We're investigating that,' repeatedly, to every question."

That principal was counseled that it would be wise to give at least some solid information to the reporters, Ms. Crawford said.

The Microsoft Corporation is a big influence in the Seattle area--its headquarters is in the nearby suburb of Redmond, Wash.--and no conference in the Emerald City would seem complete without a contribution from the software behemoth.

Matthew Dunn, a former high school teacher who is now an education program manager at Microsoft, discussed with N.S.P.R.A. members how computer technology could be used to improve communications between school districts and the public.

He noted that the promise of technology in education has long overreached the reality. Thomas Edison predicted in 1913 that textbooks would be made obsolete within 10 years because of the motion picture.

If Mr. Dunn were made the technology director of a district, he said, his first priority "would be to train teachers and give them a computer with e-mail and access to computer bulletin boards."

School officials should survey their communities to determine how many parents have computers and an e-mail address, he said. If 40 percent or 50 percent of parents or community members are on-line, districts should start thinking about ways to communicate with them electronically.

"You will find an easy way to communicate and break down the brick walls of the school building," he said.

He also suggested that districts begin creating "home pages" on the World Wide Web, the part of the Internet that supports graphics and links to other areas of cyberspace.

The N.S.P.R.A. meeting included many sessions that were meant to be practical, such as how to spruce up school newsletters, how to project the right district image through the proper choice of colors and logos, and "Spin Doctoring 101: A Crash Survival Guide for Dealing With the News Media." (Pointers: Stick to your agenda and avoid professional jargon.)

Another practical session was aimed at districts' bottom lines: "How To Win at the Polls."

Among the tips for a successful school-finance campaign: Survey parents and other residents regularly to measure support for finance issues. Study election records in your jurisdiction and conduct voter registration at school events or during school registration. Supplant mass communications efforts with personal letters.

Some of these tips come from the association's newly revised guidebook to school elections, Win at the Polls. The 300-page book costs $175.50 for N.S.P.R.A. members and $195 for nonmembers, plus $12 shipping and handling. Copies are available from the National School Public Relations Association, 1501 Lee Highway, No. 201, Arlington, Va. 22209; (703) 528-5840.

--Mark Walsh

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