Stakeholder & Community Relations–Surviving scandal: Use the resources of the web

Imagine you’ve landed the public relations coup of a lifetime. The President of the United States–the leader of the free world–wants to visit one of your schools to praise your new technology program.

Now imagine that this leader has been caught–after months of vehement denials–in a furiously public sex scandal with a young (barely out of college!) White House intern. The details of that affair are splattered in brutally frank terms across the internet for all the world–including your students–to see.

Suddenly, your PR dream has turned into a nightmare, one that poses a serious ethical dilemma for you, your school and your community. Your board of education has less than 48 hours to decide what to do.

A friend of mine actually was confronted with the above dilemma, and we talked for hours about the ethical ramifications of the impending Presidential visit. We asked ourselves, does the potential for learning–and a brush with history–outweigh the possible risks of media mayhem and community division?

Maybe you’re not expecting the president on your door step, but the Clinton debacle is so pervasive that it’s already affecting your schools one way or another. Knowledgeable PR specialists will help their schools grapple with these important issues and seize these “golden moments”–however tarnished–for learning and communication.

Right vs. Right

The gut-wrenching challenge posed by a possible Clinton visit to a school district is a classic “right vs. right” ethical dilemma, according to Rushworth Kidder, author of Shared Values for a Troubled World and president of the Institute for Global Ethics in Cambden, Maine.

“On the one side you have the fact that this is still in process, still under investigation. There is also the respect due the office of the presidency and the question of forgiveness. Do we really want to communicate that there are circumstances where you have done something so heinous we can’t even have a dialogue–that you can’t come because of who you are?” asks Kidder.

“On the other side, you have a moral examplar who has failed, and failed aggregiously, and you could build a case that you would not want to put someone before the student body who has already lied in public when he said ‘I did not have sex with that woman.’ What are you saying you approve of, what message are you sending about what matters most in American culture when you think of the next generation of students?”

So how did I counsel my friend? I thought he should let the President come. The Office of the Presidency is bigger than the individual entrusted with it. Democracy doesn’t thrive in a hothouse, but in the marketplace of ideas. We don’t gain anything by avoiding the tough questions and issues, or by refusing to join in the debate.

And, as another wise PR colleague pointed out, the schools in question are going to be part of the story no matter whether they say “yes” or “no,” so district leaders would probably be better off taking a more proactive role. Saying “no” could explode into a national news story.

Springboard to Learning

“It’s a golden opportunity for skilled teachers to show kids how our government works–or if you will, doesn’t work,” says Dennis Lubeck, director of the International Education Consortium (IEC) in St. Louis. “Good teachers try to help kids sort out the various issues involved and understand why and how people and democracies differ. It would be irresponsible not to.”

Current events can pique students’ interest and bring social studies and other key academic areas to life in the classroom, Lubeck says. The web, with its instant access to timely, world-wide information and debate, is a powerful learning tool when used wisely.

However, teachers need to use their own discretion when deciding whether or not to use the Starr report in the classroom, according Will Blaylock, instructional technology coordinator for the Rockwood (Mo.) School District.

But for many schools, the Starr report was replicated in so many places that blocking student access quickly became an impossible task. Blaylock–who at home makes the web accessible only from the computer in the family room–says that the best way to make sure your kids aren’t viewing objectionable web content is adult supervision.

Fighting Fire

School PR specialists can use their web sites and other technqiues to covey this critical message to parents and the community. Many parents were afraid of the web before the Clinton scandal broke; if anything, Congress’s release of the Starr report online added fuel to the fire.

It also hammered home a new reality for educators and school PR strategists: when Congress uses a communication channel,it’s no longer avant garde, but mainstream.

You might consider putting on your web site the links sites that will help teachers, parents, and other community leaders use the Clinton scandal as a “teachable moment.” You’ll find a list of links to use as a starting point at the end of this column.

And you might want to create a special section on your schools’ home page where adults can find questions that will facilitate an educational discussion of the Starr report and the events of the scandal with students.

Kidder said: “It seems to me what we’re trying to defend here is the rule of ‘men’ vs. the rule of law. Do we want to be governed by personalities, by leaders who are above the law and can do whatever they want? Or, finally, do we want to say that nobody is above the law, no matter what the personality?

“To say that the rule of law applies only to a certain level, up to the level of the presidency, goes absolutely against the grain of everything we have stood for for the last 200 years in this country. That’s why we fought the revolution.”

For help in using the Clinton crisis as a springboard to learning and communication, contact the following organizations:

Character Education Partnership

Institute for Global Ethics: (See Leadership and Trust by Rushworth Kidder, Tips for Teachers, Education)

Bureau of Essential Ethics Education: (See Kids Page).

HIstory/Social Studies Web Site for K-12 Teachers:

Freedom Forum: (See Character Education: A Modern Necessity”)

National School Public Relations Association:

Other links in this column:

International Education Consortium

Rockwood School District

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