Friday, June 8, 2012

Spin or service?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools needs a bigger communications department to keep up with the times, Executive Director LaTarzja Henry told the school board during an update Wednesday.

I almost feel bad about raising the topic in this forum,  which tends to be heavy on taxpayer watchdogs who consider her department a $2 million-a-year spin factory (read about the costs and results here).  I'm not trying to hang Henry up as a virtual piƱata.  In fact,  I thought the presentation gave an interesting overview of all the balls her crew is keeping in the air,  from delving into social media to handling "reputational crises" (think performance pay and bad data) to helping school staff cope with tragedy.

This has been an especially tough school year on that last front,  Henry said,  with 30 student deaths and 17 "staff tragedies."  Many of those didn't make headlines,  but still had to be dealt with among the school communities.

While working with the media is the most visible task,  the department reported on some items that played out below the public radar.  CMS increased its volunteers from 45,700 last year to 67,233 this year.  And the communication folks helped get Ident-A-Kid sign-in systems into 81 schools. That means visitors and volunteers are matched against the sex offender registry and other databases;  people who might pose problems are flagged before they enter.

Of course,  there was a bit of spin on display,  too.  I had to grin when Henry described February news about a driver who got her kids off a smoldering school bus as "exactly the kind of story we love to do."  Personally,  I'm not sure school buses bursting into flames qualify as good news, even when kids escape unharmed.

I don't know if incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison will agree that the communication staff needs more people to handle multimedia and revive CMS-TV.  I do know that communication staff can play a vital role in getting information to the public,  whether it's through reporters, CMS outlets or direct citizen requests.  And ultimately,  it's the person at the top who determines how well that system works.  A bad PR staff might discourage the release of clear,  accurate information,  but I think it's more common for a good one to be forced to run interference for recalcitrant officials.

Balancing communication needs with the push to channel money into classrooms is just one of the tough decisions waiting for Morrison. And it's just one more thing for the rest of us to keep an eye on in the coming months.

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