Developing Credibility

From Debroah Bush-Suflita, Communications Manager of the Capital Region Board of Cooperative Educational Services, Albany, New York:

The most important element of an effective public information program is credibility. Indeed, credibility is the most important element in an effective educational program. You cannot lie or obscure the truth, because you will quickly lose credibility. . . .

Unfortunately, you can also lose credibility even when you are telling it like it is. People mistrust government, and so they are naturally suspect of anything coming from the mouths of government officials. Here are some tips on how a district can develop credibility through its communications:
*Don’t concentrate your communications on only the good news. School districts have problems. Talk about those problems and what the district is doing to resolve them. Believe it or not, the public is very forgiving of frailties, particularly when they see that school district officials recognize those frailties and are trying to do something about them.
* If you are going to use any opinion in a newsletter story or a public presentation, make sure you back it up with facts. For example, if you describe a teacher contract settlement as fair, show exactly how much the raises are. If you describe a sports program as being good for students, show how many sports teams you have, how many students are involved, and what value they receive from that participation. People can argue with opinion, but it’s hard to dispute or dismiss the facts.
* Don’t be afraid of controversy. If the community is talking about it, you should be writing or talking about it. Many times, bringing issues right out on the table diffuses the controversy. Here again, you should lean more heavily towards facts then opinion.
* Become sensitive to what people out in the schools and community are saying and what they are grumbling about. This will help you avoid writing or saying something that will be easily dismissed as lies.
* Be timely with your communications. People in the community should learn about new developments as they are occurring. They also should learn about problems as soon as the school district identifies them. And they should hear the news first from the district, not from other sources (such as over the back fence or at cocktail parties).
* Don’t overlook your staff in your communications. Remember that school districts work on the reverse pyramid concept. As far as the public is concerned, the least credible sources of information are the people at the top. The most credible are those people at the bottom of the pyramid. You can write stories till your blue in the face about how economically the school district is being run, but if the teachers (or worse yet, the custodians or bus drivers) are talking out in the community about the incredible amount of waste they see, then you are dead in terms of credibility.
* Most importantly, have faith in the public – both internal and external. Don’t be afraid to discuss any topic or share any kind of information with them. Being open will sometimes get you into trouble, at least temporarily so. In other words, the district will get criticized by some people once certain things are shared with them. But we have plenty of evidence to show that in the end, openness is the only way to develop trust. These very same people who criticize you will also come to respect you, particularly as they dialogue with you over the information you have shared; and in the end, they often will support you (or at the very least, they will lose the desire to stand in your way).