AISD: Speak Softly
School district gets sensitive over negative coverage
By Richard Whittaker, 2:46PM, Tue. Jul. 3, 2012
"All PR is good PR," right? Eh, seemingly not everyone at Austin ISD agrees with that, and the district has been debating how much bad news its staff can handle.
Like most agencies, the district issues a daily news briefing to staff – effectively just a clippings services of all local coverage. On May 21, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen wrote to her expanded cabinet, explaining how it works. She wrote, "When we began producing an internal, daily report of online news clippings last year, the primary goal was to keep district leaders informed about how AISD was being covered by news outlets – good and bad." She added that it is important for staf to know how the district is perceived, "even if it requires us to sift through negative or biased stories more often than we would like."
Well, it seems that someone can't handle that much unvarnished truth, and Carstarphen said that "I learned from you in February just how important it is to balance every edition with positive stories." As a result, the news digest was redesigned to include "at least one "Top Story" focusing on the daily accomplishments and successes of our teachers, students, and staff."
If that's not enough to smooth whatever feathers have been ruffled, Carstarphen added that the Public Relations and Multicultural Outreach department is working hard to distribute positive news stories, and that it's adding lots of new PR tools (PR, mind, not news) like the website, PRMO director Alex Sanchez's new radio show, and a new external news letter.
The PRMO department is – and there's no shocker here – occasionally controversial. Supporters of Carstarphen, such as trustee candidate Mary Ellen Pietruszynski, have praised it as one of the best developments under her tenure. However, there were a lot of eyebrows raised right from its formation: Carstarphen fired pretty much the entire press office under the reduction in force, wiping out a lot of institutional knowledge and press relations. The new staff had an undoubted uphill task, getting used to a new city and all the baggage that came with it (I personally recommended that they read the excellent and informative As Good as It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin, by Stanford University researcher Larry Cuban, as a solid primer to the rocky history of the district.) Moreover, the initial purge of the old PR department was sold to the trustees as a cost saving exercise, and as PRMO has grown several board members have wanted a clear accounting of whether they're getting value for money.
But the PRMO department only presents policy: It doesn't set it. The district has sometimes seemed, eh, a little overly-sensitive to criticism (like Carstarphen attacking respected researcher Ed Fuller over his work on IDEA Public Schools' numbers) and has laid itself open to accusations of playing favorites (like reserving public seats at board meetings for IDEA backers.)
Last December, Carstarphen invited the Chronicle editorial team over a meeting about "a better working relationship" with us. "I've never seen a paper like it," she said (we're not sure if that's a compliment to us or a strange comment about the Washington City Paper or the City Pages in St. Paul – the alt.weeklies in cities where she has worked and lived). She seemed most interested in trying to find a way to get an op-ed into the paper, but that's something we never do. Still, that mostly convivial meeting was a big step forward from her old habit (according to multiple sources in DC and St. Paul) of calling reporters up and sternly trying to set the record straight when she didn't like what they wrote.