"Don't Be a Media Ostrich." By William L. Bainbridge. School Planning and Management. October 1995.


By William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D.

Ostrich - a swift-footed bird which
when pursued hides its head in the sand and
believes itself to be unseen.

"I absolutely detest the word 'reform' because it has the connotation that something is wrong - and there's nothing wrong." The speaker was Shelley Fisher, President of the National Science Teachers Association. Her words came in an address to a teachers' conference at a university campus. The remarks came one day after I watched other national educational association officers on C-Span. They were the recipients of harsh criticism for their generally positive portrayal of the current condition of American public education from members of a U.S. Congressional sub-committee.

The news media is having a heyday casting educators in a negative light for defending the status quo. Perhaps the most startling example came when former Nixon administration staffer Diane Sawyer hosted a "Primetime Live" segment on ABC last spring. Sawyer couldn't have been tougher on those who manage our nation's schools if she had set out from the beginning to discredit educational administration as a profession.

If you're in the school administration business and haven't seen or read Sawyer's "Reading, Writing and Rip-off?", you should. Transcripts are available from Journal Graphics Inc. in Denver (CO).

Sawyer began, "If you care about your children's schools and the taxes you pay, we hope you'll listen to this report. We all know the problems - too few teachers, crowded classrooms, test scores going down, and we're told, too little money. But is that really the problem? Did you know Americans are now paying more than four times what we paid in the 1950's for education? In fact, on average, we pay as much per student per year in a public school as some private schools charge. That's $5,314. But what about the way the money is spent? Years ago, in an effort to standardize and improve our schools, bureaucracies have been put in place that have grown larger and larger. Today, school administrators are entrusted with $263 billion and no obligation to run efficiently, like a business."

The Primetime crew had conducted an "investigation" for five months "all around the country". The quick-tongued and high profile journalist cited examples from the urban centers of New York, Dallas and Chicago to Palm Beach (FL) and Folsom (CA). In each case, she did her best to make the chief school administrators and their support staff look insensitive, inattentive and incompetent.

Some members of the media are experts at exploiting and manipulating even the slightest hint of weakness. Denying or attempting to place only a "positive spin" on the problems facing our schools gives the media an opening to unfairly criticize or place blame. As a result, unfortunately, school administrators can appear culpable at worst and out-of-touch at best. Maybe what's needed to combat this onslaught of bashing by the media is a no-nonsense approach that neither ignores or bemoans the problems of public education.

For years, the National School Public Relations Association, AASA, NASSP and other school administrator organizations have sponsored workshops on "dealing with the media." The examples cited in the Primetime Live piece demonstrate the need for executives to be prepared for muckraking media crews.

In the early 1980s, Dr. Joseph L. Davis, past-president of NSPRA and former Superintendent of Schools in Columbus (OH), was forced to confront an angry group of parents, alumni and news media representatives. They were frustrated because "their" high school had been closed. Davis simply opened the meeting by saying, "If you want to know who the fella is who was responsible for closing North High School, you're looking at him." The genteel and witty Davis went on to take responsibility and spell out the case for closing the school. This honest and straightforward approach may not have converted every hardliner, but it bolstered respect for Davis and his administration. Joe Davis is a real artist in working with the media and community. While every school administrator can't have the skills of Davis, a former journalist, we can all practice an open and honest approach to dealing with media and community concerns.

Creating a positive media partnership is one of the great strengths of Louis Gerstner, Jr., Chairman & CEO of IBM. In chief leadership roles at American Express, RJR Nabisco and "Big Blue," he arrived on the scene, formed a team, analyzed the problems and solved them by straightforward, commonsense approaches. Gerstner never hesitates to "air dirty linen" with the media and take appropriate action. His success, long-term, has been remarkable.

Davis and Gerstner illustrate the power of accepting responsibility and explaining - not defending - our actions. An open, yet firm, stance will assure the public that administrators are not hiding from school problems, and are working competently and decisively to solve them. More importantly, a strong, positive relationship with the media will thwart their efforts to discredit the good work of our profession. Ostrich-like behavior only gets you a mouthful of sand, while a new focal point is fully exposed.


Dr. Bainbridge is President of SchoolMatch, a Columbus, OH, research firm assisting corporations with school data and consulting services.