A venerated public relations mantra goes something like this: “Never get in an argument with people who buy their ink by the barrel.” With the advent of the internet, it’s time for an update: “Never get in an argument with a blogger.”

Just ask Lawrence, N.Y., school board trustee Pamela Greenbaum, who recently asked the Manhattan Supreme Court to force Google Inc. to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger called Orthomom.

Reportedly an Orthodox Jewish housewife who lives on Long Island, Orthomom regularly tackles school district and community issues on her blog.

The blog unabashedly supports the rights of private school parents and the conservative–and growing–Jewish community.

Greenbaum, who often finds herself in the minority on key board votes, is also seeking the identity of Orthomom readers who posted anonymous and derogatory comments.

The controversy stems from Greenbaum’s consistent opposition to using taxpayer monies to support private school students.

In recent years, the District 15 school board has grappled with a plethora of private versus public school issues. Divisive debates and an attempted recall of the conservative majority have split the board–and the community.

In February, the district reached an out-of-court settlement with private school special-education parents.

Other controversies have centered on whether the board should waive community fees for using public school facilities or use taxpayer monies to pay for transportation for pre-kindergarten students who attend private school.

When Greenbaum voiced concern in the Jewish Star about a proposal to involve public school teachers in private after-school programs, Orthomom blogged, “Wow. Way to make clear that you have no interest in helping the private school community in any fashion.”

The comments that spurred Greenbaum’s recent court filings came from an anonymous reader who wrote, “Pam Greenbaum is a bigot and really should not be on the board.” A second reader agreed.

According to an article in the Nassau Herald, Greenbaum was “horrified” by the remarks and the blog’s purported readership of 300,000 visitors annually.

Unfortunately, by taking legal action, she has managed to elevate the controversy from a local dispute to the global blogosphere.

A quick Google search yielded another 135,000 results, and the story has jumped from niche newspapers to the mainstream–and national–press.

The moral of the story is that public officials, especially elected school board members, need to have thicker skins.

The law clearly favors free speech, and proving malice–a requirement in libel–is tough. Meanwhile, Orthomom’s readership and her folk hero status continue to rise.

Even bloggers who disagree with her viewpoints are coming to Orthomom’s defense. “Public debate and the fostering of open communications–particularly in the forum of public education–is not only useful, but absolutely necessary,” said a recent post on the Community Alliance blog. “Though unfortunate that some would stoop to name-calling and ad hominem attacks, those in the public’s line of fire (as is Trustee Greenbaum) must learn to either take the heat or stay out of the kitchen.”

Ignoring bloggers and other citizen journalists clearly isn’t the answer, however. Remember John Kerry and the Swift Boat controversy? Kerry assumed the mainstream media–and voters–wouldn’t consider the anonymous and unproven allegations credible. When he finally started fighting back, his campaign had already derailed.

A better approach, public relations experts say, is to aggressively and proactively tell your side of the story–and engage the community in the issues.

Even though Orthomom hides behind the “I didn’t post it, so I’m not responsible” mantra, her blog notes she probably would have taken the offending comments down if Greenbaum had approached her directly.

While I’m not sure getting in a blog fight would accomplish much, that doesn’t mean staying silent or ignoring the attacks is the right strategy.

James E. Lukaszewski, chairman and president of the Lukaszewski Group, recommends setting the record straight by creating “corrections and clarifications” fact sheets or web site pages.

Lukaszewski recommends putting the inaccurate information and clarifying statements side-by-side, without any editorializing.

The corrected info can be posted on district web sites or sent electronically via eMail to a targeted list of district or community opinion leaders.

By responding quickly and immediately challenging inaccurate or misleading statements, school leaders can help keep myths from becoming accepted as fact.

Unfortunately, spurious attacks from anonymous sources on a worldwide stage are part of the dark underbelly of the internet.

Responding to these new media challenges is going to require new communication approaches.

Links:

Orthomom Blog
http://orthomom.blogspot.com/

The Community Alliance Blog
http://thecommunityalliance.blogspot.com/2007/02/thems-fighting-words.html

The Lukaszewski Group
http://www.e911.com

Nora Carr–the Stakeholder & Community Relations columnist for the print eSchool News newspaper–is chief communications officer for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.