The Changing Role Of School Spokesman

Jan 13, 2012

A spokesman for the New Haven Public Schools is leaving his post following an incident in which he grabbed a reporter’s camera while she was on assignment and insisted that she stop filming. More and more school districts are employing public relations professionals. We take a look at the field, at a time when people want more information about what’s going on in their local schools.

In late December, reporter Melissa Bailey arranged interviews about school reform efforts at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy. Bailey works for the New Haven Independent, an online news site. The city’s school spokesman Chris Hoffman unexpectedly showed up, and announced that he’d be sitting in on all of the interviews. Bailey protested, arguing that his presence changed the one-on-one experience.

Then the following exchange took place. This is taken from a video posted on the Independent’s website.  

"For the record I did not touch you, I touched the camera."


"If you say otherwise... No I am not doing a video."

"Whoah, stop touching me, okay? Chris why are you following me to a story when I’m trying to write up at the schools?"

Later that day Hoffman apologized, calling his conduct “wrong and unprofessional”. Two days later, he submitted his letter of resignation.  

"It used be that organizations thought they really could control their own messages and keep control of the message."  

Brenda Wrigley is chair of the Department of Public Relations at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School. She says in an age of technology and social media, expectations have changed. People want more from school districts than a press release or newsletter.

"Districts that are smart and that are successful and have widespread public support are ones that realize that they need to have to have an open, honest and transparent means of communication with people. And that includes listening as well as talking."

Communication is no longer one to many, she says. Digital technology has transformed the model so its many to many - and that’s a lot more complicated.

Will Clark, Chief Operating Officer for the New Haven Public Schools, says schools already have an established process for transparency.

"Whether it's state reports or how we put our budget documents together, we post all those agendas online. We have public meetings. Anyone can show up at those meetings. Generally speaking, people tend not to come."

And he says the press needs to understand that there are other concerns.

"The rights of the individuals, particularly the students. Certainly privacy rights that need to be protected as well, as just the process of education. So you can’t have pulling teacher or administrators away when they should be engaged in curriculum and educating children."

But that may no longer satisfy the public’s demand for information. An explosion of available school data has education leaders turning to professionals says Patrick Riccards, CEO of the advocacy group ConnCAN and a longtime education communications specialist. 

He says the job is evolving into something like that of a political press secretary, handling crises and advising leadership on how to shape their media image.  

"The stakes are so high. If you look in urban school districts, the average lifespan of an urban superintendent is now less than three years. And superintendents are judged on a couple of key criteria. How did your school do on the test scores? What is your graduation percentage? And so as a result you often will see school districts that really want to make sure that the image that they’re putting forward is the only image that’s seen."

To that end, former New Haven school spokesperson Catherine Sullivan deCarlo says for districts to agree to open classroom doors to public scrutiny, they need to trust that faculty and staff are all rowing with the same set of oars.  

"And once you do feel that everybody is in the boat and we’re all working for the same thing which is the best for children, then you should have transparency. Because you should feel  comfortable that people can come in, see what you’re doing and communicate about it."

But that might mean the district only allowing access to teachers or students who won’t speak out against district policy. 

ConnCAN’s Patrick Riccards says at a time of intense focus on school reform, the demand for media coverage is only going to increase.

"And I think as we look at how we talk about what's happening in the schools, it really has to be a data driven discussion. We’re no longer just writing about spring break and how local sports teams are doing. This is now a very deep dive discussion into performance measures and data. And that requires a sophistication we’ve haven’t seen in education communications in the past."

And will require greater sophistication from reporters covering the education beat.  Because in the end says Riccards, most media is local. And the heart of a local community is its schools.