Friday, September 14

Managing Change: Public Relations Can Be Proactive

By most accounts, the biggest hurdle in the Chicago teachers' strike has been performance evaluations. It's not new. Los Angeles and Boston recently adopted performance evaluations too, some of them signing on with reservations. They are afraid the evaluation process will be unjustly used to let teachers go.

The good news is that the Chicago strike may be nearing an end. Among the concessions: Evaluations of tenured teachers during the first year could not result in dismissal and later evaluations could be appealed. There are some new benefits added in an effort for both sides to make concessions.

The question that always looms is how long will these concessions remain viable? There is, after all, a big difference between negotiation and compromise. The first involves two groups working together toward a solution. The second involves two groups offering concessions, which sometimes looks like a solution but often breaks down because it isn't a solution. It just moves things forward.

Where public relations professionals can affect positive change. 

Strikes are often publicity generators for hardened deal makers. But if public relations professionals were allowed to interject on the more strategic aspects of a crisis, something else might happen.

If we adopt and expand the definition of public relations beyond communication as it had been in prior definitions (and assume practitioners embrace it) rather than confine it, public relations may have prevented the Chicago strike because it could have helped mitigate an evaluation process designed by teachers and the administration as opposed to just the administration well before it made it into a contract negotiation.

They had the time. Falling test scores is hardly new. It has been noted for a long time. But the debate about it usually becomes heated during contract negotiations and elections. That's when most evaluations are made on an "accept it/reject it" basis. The fact that it becomes a sticking point so late in the game undermines the intent of the evaluations in the first place.

In theory, evaluations usually have several functions. They can help evaluate student knowledge. They can show teachers where to improve or what works. They can provide benchmarks to map trajectories.  So on and so forth.

Most of that is tactical so it needs to be pulled back a bit. The real issue here is that students are not prepared to advance because they lack fundamentals but they somehow are advanced anyway. And perhaps more importantly, some of them do not develop the critical love for education that they need (the one area where charter and private schools seem to excel more than any other factor, it seems to me).

Everybody ought to be asking the same question. How do we instill a love for education and help children succeed? Ideas from all quarters ought to be proposed, worked out, and tested by a mutually agreed upon evaluation system (phased in as suggested before) before it becomes the law of the land.

This requires open communication, which is a potential function of public relations. Why do the teachers think students are failing and is this belief valid? Why do the parents think their children are failing and is this valid? Why do the administrators think education is failing and is this valid?

This would have been a better approach by the administration. Preventative public relations.

Another lesson for public relations in negotiation. 

Although the Chicago teachers' union seems to have found some language that makes these evaluations more tolerable, there is a better lesson for public relations practitioners. Every "accept it/reject it" demand can be better met with a counter solution.

A counter solution is any measurable program that offers a better outcome than the proposal. Had the Chicago teachers' union (or teachers on their own) proposed a potentially better or provably better evaluation system, then the media would have been less likely to zero in on performance, salaries, etc. as a contrast to the evaluations proposed by the administration.

Instead, the media would have likely compared the two evaluation systems. And teachers, like I believe most do in their hearts, would have looked like they were interested in the students more than what they get. That is what teaching is all about it, isn't it? In fact, it's why I lend some of my time as an instructor.

For the public relations practitioner, the point is pretty simple. Always consider that you may not have to make a choice based on a "black/white" scenario laid out in front of you. You can set the communication and solution parameters by being proactive in planning or be better prepared to change the conversation for the benefit of equally important publics.
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