“Riots at Tucson High,” “Weird stuff in Plano schools,” “Our caring (about themselves) administration and teachers’ union.” Ouch. Headlines like these are enough to make any school leader’s stomach churn. Now, imagine having them splattered across the web, for your community–and the world–to see.

Welcome to digital advocacy, a brave new frontier featuring vigilante web sites, smear mail, and hot links to your favorite pseudo experts and CAVEs (Citizens Against Virtually Everything).

Posted by activist groups, renegade school board members, angry parents, and frustrated former employees, these “anti-sites” are growing exponentially on the web. Many are one-person, one-agenda operations. Some voice legitimate concerns, bring important information to light, and add to the public discourse about school reform. Others spout dubious research from questionable sources, twist the truth about district programs, and quote school officials out of context.

“While the purpose of such a site is to generate useful discussion on the subject of school reform, it quickly falls to pieces when people post lists of lousy teachers or insinuate discrimination or other problems in a district,” said Elliott Levine of the Lawrence Public Schools in New York. “Some see the premise of bad news, education, and the internet as a potentially profitable combination.”

Settlement agreements, confidential memos, administrator salaries (by name), low test scores, discipline problems, new curriculum plans, building cost overruns, and employee concerns (all anonymous, of course) typically fuel these sites. We ignore them at our peril. What’s a PR person to do? Here are a few tips:

1. Know what’s out there. This seems like a no-brainer, but in researching this issue I was amazed to discover how many superintendents and PR people knew their districts had active anti-sites–some even gave me the addresses–yet they had never bothered to look them up. It’s impossible to craft an effective response strategy if you don’t know what the issues are, who is leading the effort, or how many people are involved.

If you’re not sure if you have an anti-site or know how to scan for new ones, try searching names like “Citizens to Save (district name) Schools” or “Parents for Improved Education in (district name).” Other key words typically found in school anti-sites include local control, committee, citizens, unofficial, responsible reform, concerned parents, citizens united, better schools, effective education, etc.

2. Scan anti-sites regularly. Keep tabs on the issues and recurring themes. Use these data to help you anticipate unfavorable rumblings before they explode into a full-blown crisis. Check for eMail options, links to other sites, original material, interactive features, and other, more sophisticated techniques. Get a feel for how frequently the pages are updated. It’s important to know if you’re dealing with a novice with no following or a savvy cyber-leader.

3. Embrace the issue. Let’s face it: We often create our own activist groups through poor communication or performance. Like Pogo, “we have met the enemy and it is us.” If your research reveals a chink in your school’s armor, admit the mistake or problem, correct it, thank your activists for their assistance, figure out a way to meaningfully involve them in your school or district decision making processes so it doesn’t happen again, and move on.

4. Anticipate typical anti-site names–and snap up those URL registrations so advocacy groups can’t use them against you. How easy would it be for an unsuspecting parent to run across an anti-site aimed at Plano Schools, with the domain name “http://www.pisd.org”? For a nominal fee, you can register domain names with InterNIC at its web site.

Also be sure to register your site with major search engines and with other school-related sites, like the Web 66 School Registry. Try imbedding metatags (key words that search engines are likely to pick up on) into your HTML code. For Cooperating School Districts, for example, metatags might include cooperating, schools, districts, CSD, services, education, agency, consortium, and staff development. Make it easy for parents, community members, and search engines to find your site and they’re less like to stumble onto an anti-site.

5. Build opportunities for feedback from community and staff through online surveys, chat rooms, bulletin boards and other mechanisms on your web site. Make contacting staff easy by creating hot links from your web page to their eMail. Balance accessibility by asking people to register by providing their names and a valid eMail address.

“One of the biggest reasons these sites flourish is that they give people an opportunity to voice their concerns anonymously,” Levine says. His district uses a program by WinStar for Education called WebBoard to gain community input. It prevents anonymous postings, Levine says, while allowing those with legitimate concerns a chance to “raise important issues and hash them out in a more productive way.”

In addition to helping you sort the credible from the cranks, this will also give you another vehicle for reaching more of your constituents via future eReleases.

6. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” Gain insight from this old political saw and fight the very human–and very damaging–urge to avoid interacting with the activists in your community. Ask to meet with your critics, provide them with timely, factual online information, involve them when you can. Above all, keep your cool. You’re probably not going to convert them to your side–I personally wouldn’t waste time trying to–but at least you’ll know what they’re up to. Resist the temptation to get in a “tit for tat” battle. One web site proudly posted an administrator’s response, complete with a cartoon of horse’s head and the memorable line, “Right from the Horse’s Mouth.”

7. Ban education jargon–and do a better job of communicating clearly, simply, and concisely about your goals, accomplishments, challenges, and school reform efforts. Use all of your available communication channels, from new media like the web, eMail, and fax broadcasting to public engagement and more traditional methods like open houses, press releases, and district newsletters.

We can’t continue to write these concerns off as fringe issues. If people in mainstream America don’t understand what we’re trying to do in public education, they won’t support it. We can start by creating web pages and eMail networks that are as effective as our advocates–and adversaries.

Web 66 School Registry

http://web66.coled.umn.edu/

WinStar for Education’s WebBoard

http://www.win4edu.com

InterNIC

http://www.internic.net