A new element of the Palo Alto school district's communication strategy to each week gather and categorize all media coverage related to the district as positive, negative or neutral came under fire from one board member last night, who called for the superintendent to cease the activity.
District Communications Coordinator Tabitha Kappeler-Hurley has been collecting all news stories about the district and then marking them as "win," "lose" or "tie." The practice is a metric for one of the board's five overarching goals for the year "to anticipate, respond, and promptly resolve distracting and disruptive issues in order to maintain focus on the District's vision."
It was reported in Tuesday's board meeting agenda that as of Nov. 22, there have been 50 positive ("win"), 10 negative ("lose") and 42 neutral ("tie") stories about the district.
Among those marked "wins" was a Palo Alto Online article previewing the first board meeting of the year; "ties" included stories about Palo Alto High School's new academic integrity policy and a recent student suicide.
Kappeler-Hurley told the Weekly Tuesday that a story categorized as a win successfully shared the "good work that the district is doing," and particularly might have been the result of a press release she shared. What's designated a tie is more subjective.
"Even if it's something that you could say is a negative story or a story that highlights a problem or an issue, it's still very much be possible for it to be a 'tie,'" she explained. "Is it fair reporting? Is it balanced and give good information? It may still highlight a problem and that's fine. That's the role of media, to share information."
She added that a story that might have left out information the district provided to the reporter "might slide it over to the negative."
Newly elected board member Ken Dauber, who along with Terry Godfrey was sworn in Tuesday night, expressed concern that such an approach is moving away from what the district's standard on media coverage should be: ensuring accuracy.
"I don't think that it really reflects our communications strategy well to try to categorize media reports (as) positive, negative and neutral because I think it leads us into decisions that media coverage is negative not because it's inaccurate necessarily -- which I think should be our standard -- but because it's critical," Dauber said. "I think that we really should be focused on how do we ensure that we are working to communicate effectively facts about the district and that we are responsive to the media and so forth. I don't think we should be necessarily monitoring the tone of those articles or whether we agree with their perspectives."
Board member Camille Townsend and Melissa Baten Caswell, who was elected board president Tuesday night, agreed that accuracy is important but didn't express support for discontinuing the media analysis.
"You bring up a very valid point -- if we're categorizing accurate as positive, we get into a situation where not very good news is counted as a positive because it's accurate," Baten Caswell said. "We probably need to separate the two of those."
Superintendent Max McGee, who said he successfully used this as a communications metric during his tenure as Illinois state superintendent, defended the approach as a means to dispel a "bunker mentality" within the district.
"When I first got here, what I heard from members of the community and especially from the leadership team is, 'We are under fire from the media. We have a bunker mentality. We are paralyzed by all the negative press.' That's a term that was used," he said.
"There's a psychological benefit for people to see that the loudest voice isn't the only voice," Baten Caswell echoed. "We could all argue with Tabitha on whether things are positive, negative or neutral, when maybe all we need to do is keep track of how many positive articles there are just so that people know that there are (positive articles)."
Dauber agreed that letting district staff "know that their work is appreciated in the community" is important, but that it can be done in other ways. He suggested making it a practice to circulate positive news stories internally and said he'll bring further ideas to the board's next meeting in January.
"I think the ultimate principle here is our performance is going to drive our perception," Dauber said. "If we focus on performance, then perception will follow. That's kind of the basic crank that we're trying to turn.
"I think this moves us into territory that we don't really want to be," he said. "I suggest that we discontinue this particular instrument."
Baten Caswell said she'll make sure the topic is brought back for future discussion as part of the superintendent's mid-year evaluation on Jan. 20, when board goals will also be discussed.