Outside the Walls


Thoughts from Outside the Walls, January - May 2006

Copyright Dick Bernard dick_bernard@msn.com

Idea for January 2006
Results, "Bells and Whistles" and the Nitty Gritty
Results: A few months ago I was at a luncheon meeting with a few people. The issue was future school referendum elections. Two of those at the table were acknowledged experts in such school elections. Typically, their role was to enter a specific election a few months before it occurred. Election day, their goal was simple: one more vote than the opposition. The stakes in such elections: 'winner take all', with campaigns built on that basis. Of course, even a win is good only until the next election, when the 'losers' have an opportunity to marshal a new campaign.

"Bells and Whistles": Awhile later, through e-mail, came an advertisement from a national Communications company touting a seminar on new-fangled communications gimmicks like 'blogs' and assorted new techniques for communicating with segments of the public. The ad reminded me of assorted experiments with bells and whistles I had seen during my own career.

For just one example, there was a short phase in the late 1980s, when someone came up with an idea that brief VHS tapes could be inexpensively produced and mailed to potential voters, who would then watch them as infomercials and hopefully vote correctly when the time came. My memory was that the experiment, like others, had a short life span, suggesting something about its lack of usefulness. Everything about its potential value may have been true, save two rather important facts: you couldn't force people to actually sit down and watch the tape they received, and if they did watch it, the virtual presentation, however professionally done, had not much impact on the 'hearts and minds' of the prospective voters. Ditto, I thought to myself, about 'blogs' and similar new-generation innovations. Such strategies will resonate with a few interested in neat gimmicks, but will they resonate with enough voters to make a difference or justify their expense? I doubt it.

"The Nitty Gritty," building positive long-term relationships with the voting community, who are mostly outsiders, is most important of all, in my opinion. (As I learned the term, 'nitty gritty' is the hard personal work of actually getting something done.)

General public attitudes are easily knowable: statistically valid opinion polls can be done with a randomly selected sample of a few hundred people. In my own state, for a few thousand dollars expenditure, perhaps one out of 10,000 people can be canvassed in a phone interview, and what the few hundred respondents say will be accurate within a small percentage plus or minus, and remain useable for perhaps several months. But even the few being surveyed know they are simply being mined for data, not for support.

In an arena, public education, which seems dominated by feelings and emotions, surveys are of little value to change 'hearts and minds', except as a help to provide ideas for more person-to-person communication from school to citizen. Person-to-person communication requires much more than a survey, yet genuine outreach seems an almost alien process in present day practice in public education. This is odd, in a profession whose very essence has always been person-to-person. Without good person-to-person strategies, no other method of connection is reliable, long term.

So...what is actually emphasized, today, in your venue: "Results"; "Bells and Whistles" or "the Nitty Gritty?" It's an important choice.

(During the lunch meeting earlier described, I mentioned what I felt to be the ultimate dilemma with elections: it isn't that single vote which matters, I suggested. The objective ought to be to encourage the single positive voter to encourage other positive voters to become active long-term supporters of the public schools. The election consultant nodded affirmatively. You notice things like that.)

Idea for February 2006
Customer Service:
Not long ago I received one of those purported 'photographs' whizzing around the Internet. You've seen these in many forms.

This particular photo was of a man, apparently Indian, sitting in what seemed to be a ditch, on a converted bicycle platform, obviously peddling like crazy to apparently generate electricity to run his laptop computer, on which was written
The man was wearing earphones, and was seriously looking at the computer, and had a Microsoft decal on his shirt.

The 'photo' seemed to have originated with someone's bitter economic commentary: "they're outsourcing our jobs to India," or whatever.

I've had the experience of talking to those foreign-sounding tech support people, and through Microsoft. I wouldn't be talking to them unless something was very wrong, so the basis for the conversation starts with my anger and frustration. I can understand how anger works!

This particular photo, however, followed by just a couple of weeks a really long interaction with a Microsoft Tech Support person in Bangalore, India.

Very succinctly: never in my life have I received such good Customer Service (capital letters intended). The man walked me through all of the steps to deal with my frustration (which turned out to be neither my nor Microsoft's fault), and following the very long phone appointment he sent a followup e-mail with information if I had further problems, and in addition gave me the contact information for his supervisor, if necessary.

That day "Rajeed" became an ambassador for Microsoft and for India, and I could care less where his office was, or what his accent sounded like (perceptible, but very good English).

About the same time, I had a similar but contrary experience here at home. My contact was a political candidate who I had met and talked with in person some months earlier, and in fact had sent some promised information in which he had an interest. I never heard a word from the candidate. At the time of our first conversation, he did not have an opponent, and in fact, he was unopposed for months and had secured early public endorsement of assorted leaders. Life was going swimmingly for him until a new and very strong candidate entered the race for nomination to the position he was seeking. It was only then that I got a form letter from him, asking for support and contributions, and then another. When his race became competitive, that was when he became interested in me.

Needless to say, in a contest between Rajeed and the Candidate, it is no contest, for me. Rajeed has my vote.

Somewhere between these two examples, lies your schools 'customer service'. Where on the continuum would your schools (as represented by all the employees, as well as the physical environment you present to the public) rate?

And where do your Outside the Walls folks fit in this equation. Are they even 'customers' of Public Schools?

Some years ago on a public education listserv of which I am still part, there was a debate about the word 'customer' and what it meant in context of public education. To my recollection, the conversation focused on internal customers such as students, parents, teachers, etc. I may have tossed in 'outsiders' along the way, but I don't recall for sure.

A standard and universally understood definition of 'customer' is someone who pays money for a product or for a service...as I have to Microsoft for their technology.

It may not be usual to define an outside-the-walls type as a 'customer' of the public schools, but it is important to consider, I feel, that outsiders are major tax-payers, and as long as schools are public, and depend on taxes for support, outsiders will pay a large percentage of the cost of operating those schools.

Is it possible that outsiders ought to be considered essential 'customers' deserving much 'service'?

Work to bring your standards of dealing with Outside the Walls folks up to the standards of that Microsoft department in Bangalore, India.

Idea for March 2006
A Monet Moment
We were at a birthday party for one of our grandchildren, and along with the cake Joni, my daughter, prepared coffee.

"Do you want a cup?"

"Sure," I said, and in a moment a mug imprinted with a Claude Monet painting was in my hand.

That led Joni to reminisce: "I bought that mug at the Art Institute of Chicago, when you and I went there to see the Monet exhibition," she said, and we remembered the quick trip to and from Chicago, specifically to see that magnificent exhibition of art. (It was October 26, 1995.)

Party over, we went home, and that mug and that conversation led me to remember something else about that day in Chicago.

We were standing in a very long line, waiting our turn at the exhibition, and I struck up a conversation with an elderly couple from a south suburb of Chicago.

We talked about this and that, most unremembered, except that the two folks were very nice people.

I must have mentioned somewhere along the line what my daughter did - a teacher - and what I did - a representative of teachers. I don't remember specifically that I mentioned that; I do however, remember a particular part of that long ago conversation.

"We never had children," one of them said, but both proceeded to say that they felt that it was very important to support public education with taxes for not only their own nieces and nephews, but for the good of the entire society.

The chat roamed to other topics. We viewed the magnificent Monet's, jumped in the car and began the very long drive home. It had been a very long, exhausting, memorable 24 hours.

1995 was years before I even thought about the importance of people outside the walls to the health of public schools, but even then there was something of import I picked up in that single conversation standing in line at an art museum. An inadvertent piece of public engagement took place that day. Even without children, that friendly couple believed in the great importance of public education. The mug of coffee March 26, 2006, brought forth this memory, and caused me, overnight, to dig out the photo accompanying this idea.

I wonder about those folks I met over ten years ago, and how their own school district treated them as 'customers' of the local public schools.

Another thought, generated by that mug, also comes to mind: in the detritus of any household, there reside pieces of memorabilia, oft-times long buried in boxes and closets, which next see the light of day while the owner is preparing for a garage sale, or otherwise cleaning house. Often, the memories are mugs, or t-shirts, or programs, etc. Often these items convey the memory, but seldom do they include the date or even the place the event occurred.

I know the date the above-recalled event occurred because I had noted it on the photographs.

Next time you do something that involves a take-home memory, no matter how simple, consider making it at least a little memorable...and include the date and place the event occurred. It's a no cost, high benefit addition to the memory.

Think those rock concert tour t-shirts.

Idea for April 2006
The Cover Story
We have an excellent tax man, so when a fat official looking envelope from the IRS came our way a year ago this month, it came as a big surprise.

Sure enough, we were being billed for some obvious income not reported in a previous year, and a penalty was added.

I was sure I had reported the income to the tax man, and had the worksheet to prove it. I asked him about the matter, and showed him the worksheet. He apologized, but then said that I must not have turned in the original report form since those were the documents he referred to when entering the numbers on the tax return.

Fair enough. Maybe it was I who had made the error. And it wasn't fatal. On with life.

Back home, out of curiosity I looked in the file for the year in question. Sure enough, in the file was the form in question. It had been part of the tax man's working material after all. It wasn't my mistake.

I decided to make no further issue...and didn't share the 'rest of the story' with my spouse. But it has made me a bit more wary, since the tax return is ultimately our responsibility.

So, what does this have to do with school public relations and the outsider community, you ask?


We all have our cover stories, the adult version of "my dog ate the homework." They come in all shapes and sizes.

They happen in relationships between schools and citizens as well, and the wrong combination of an exposed cover story and an unforgiving taxpayer can have serious consequences the next time there is a school election.

If a mistake has been made, best to own it, and not make excuses for it, or attempt to deflect the criticism elsewhere so as to soften it.

Even if the odds favor your being able to wallpaper over the mistake with some excuse, it may not work; and if it doesn't you can be mired in big trouble down the road - much larger than that penalty we had to pay.

Idea for May 2006
Planning Ahead...and Looking for Your Best Talent

Among all the school public relations people I've met over the years, one person stands out for her social skills.

She could really throw a party.

I mean this is in a most positive sense. Her specialty seemed to be bringing people together in an informal setting and making that setting very welcoming and enjoyable for everyone, from shy to 'life of the party' types. A party she threw in 1990 remains vivid in my memory.

It was a skill she definitely had.

But she had a 'disability' as well.

I'm trained in geography, and one of the worst maps I have ever seen was drawn by this same colleague. It was also truly memorable, and clearly last minute.

She had the right idea when she tackled the map. It had a beginning and a destination, but map-making was clearly not her forte.

This particular map started on one page and its more or less random line had to be continued on page two. The scale was random: an inch might represent a block...or ten miles...all on the same map. Whether the route was going east...or north...was uncertain.

Someone direction-challenged would have had difficulty navigating if relying on this map, even on a sunny day at high noon.

I wish I had kept the map.

It just wasn't her skill, or interest.

The 2005-2006 school year is now near its end, and planning has already begun for 2006-2007, not far in the future.

My colleague teaches two things about school public relations:

First, there is still time to Plan Ahead with your school publications, and other means by which you communicate, so that they are very welcoming to the outside the walls folks who will see them in a few months.

Consider enlisting some outsiders to review all of your general publications, long before the final draft is finalized and goes to the printer. Ask them to review and comment on your proposed publications, etc., through their eyes, and not only ask for but follow through on their recommendations for changes in content to attract the attention of their non-public school colleagues.

Consider including even a 'curmudgeon' or two in the cadre. Their "bark" can be much bigger than their "bite." They might well appreciate being asked to help....

My colleague seemed to have almost an instinct for planning her parties so that everyone felt a part; so should your communications be planned.

Second, give very serious thought to looking for that person or persons in your school district who has a natural interest, passion and talent for relating to outsiders.

Look for the person who knows how to both draw the map and throw the party to head up your outside the walls program!

This person will not, I guarantee, 'look' the same in all districts. But he/she/them definitely is there, somewhere in your system.

Ultimately you need to 'enroll' this person, and like any good coach, you cannot expect this person to serve without authority to act, and some kind of consideration for their work. The head coach for, say, basketball, is hired for his or her expertise in coaching; and there is a stipend provided which gives some tangible value to what he/she is charged with doing.

It won't work to go simply for some volunteer whose decisions can be dismissed or overridden. You won't have that volunteer for long.

Have a great summer.

Plan that Party, and Draw that Map for fall!