Focus: Public Relations                         Pages 11-12 


Dealing With Outrageous

Online Comments  



Frances O'Reilly

Some school districts are taking a pro-active approach to community relations by developing a network of community members who volunteer to “listen” to the public. These volunteers then use their voice in the community to ensure accurate information is being heard by the public.

This has proven to be an effective strategy in one school district in the Pacific Northwest for dealing with the now-common online comment sections on daily newspapers’ websites. In many cases, these forums attract the coarsest in public speech — nonstop bashing of public officials and public schools in the crudest terms allowed by the host publication, almost always couched in anonymity. When left unaddressed, wild assertions with little basis in fact can result in the propagation of inaccurate or biased information about the public schools.

Rapid Responses
A daily newspaper in Montana carried a news story recently about a rural school district’s technology levy, quoting the superintendent about the need to upgrade technology for students and to supplement grants that were no longer as plentiful. The story was routine in nature.

Among the online comments posted at the end of the article were these:

  • “There is already so much waste going on in the … school system and you want us to pay for more???? Give us a break.”
  • “Why didn’t the … Public School leaders set a percentage of past tax money aside for this kind of event? … spend every dime we get so when we submit a new budget we can say we spent it all and we need more money from the bottomless taxpayer pit.”

The school district had established a Community Relations Committee that was geared to respond with online feedback and provide accurate information to the community. In response to the first comment, whose author was listed as “KT,” a committee member posted the following comment: “I have attended school board meetings and have been active as a community member in the development of the budget. I would be hard pressed to find money wasted. KT — please indicate where the school district is wasting money.” The response was signed with the committee member’s name, Alberta Jones.

The first complainant did not respond to this posting, however someone using the name “Angry Taxpayer” did: “I’ll tell where our district wastes money! We hire teachers and then have to train them. We spend way too much money on teacher in-service. It seems like the kids are never in school and teachers are always being paid to be trained.”

The Community Relations Committee member responded immediately with the following: “Angry taxpayer — Our district spends less than ½ percent of its total budget on teacher training. The state requires a minimum of 7 days per year for teacher training. I, as a fellow taxpayer, feel that this is a minimal investment that pays off in teachers being able to deliver curriculum using cutting-edge techniques.” Jones again signed her name.

Then two other committee members posted comments supporting the statements made by Jones.

A national study conducted at the University of Montana substantiated superintendents’ concerns about online newspaper comments and raised the need to counter them when they were reckless in conveying the truth. Superintendents in the study took issue with newspaper policies that allow anonymity, though one school leader said, “When controlled adequately, it’s mostly positive.”

Study participants granted that the online forums served to generate discussion and allowed them as leaders to “gauge public perceptions,” as well as the “impact (on) those who do not have children in school.” One respondent said: “[We] do surprisingly find that some folks do offer a different viewpoint or opinion.”

Creating Oversight
When considering your own Community Relations Committee, identify citizens from all facets of life who have the capacity to influence others (suggestions: hairdressers, physicians, clerks, school board members, parents).

Personally invite these potential committee members to an informational meeting to discuss the purpose. Share with them examples of online newspaper comments and the potential impact those comments can have on the image of the school district in the community. You should select committee members based on their willingness, availability and time constraints. Early on, agree on a structure and time frame for district administrators to communicate with the committee. Create a time line and plan by which the committee members will access the online newspaper’s comments section to address the issues being discussed about the local schools.

Use periodic meetings of the committee to evaluate progress and realign the role of the committee, if appropriate.

When committee members interact in designated online comment sections, the school district will have capitalized on an opportunity to be in two-way communication with the district’s constituents. Committee members can respond in a timely manner to counter erroneous information, as well as share favorable views of their own.

Frances O’Reilly is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Montana in Missoula, Mont. E-mail: frances.oreilly@umontana.edu. John Matt, a former superintendent and assistant professor in the same department, assisted with this article.


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